As Ian McEwan releases his new book Solar, in which, familiarly, a man of deviant appetite and less-than-sound morals is cast in a tussle between science and nature, Esquire looks at the men who write men best – even if it isn’t always flattering.
1. Ernest Hemingway: War, hunting, bull-fighting and hard liquor: reading the Hemingway canon is like going on the ultimate stag do, with novels like For Whom The Bell Tolls and A Farewell To Arms providing fantasies for suit-wearing, office-treading modern men since the beginning of the 20th century. But it was with his final novella The Old Man & The Sea that ‘Papa’ crystallized what he had spent a lifetime trying to depict: the nobility, or ‘grace under pressure’, that a man can attain when facing enormous odds – in this case, a bloody big marlin caught off the coast of Havana. Essential reading: Fiesta (The Sun Also Rises), For Whom The Bell Tolls, The Old Man & The Sea
2. Irvine Welsh: Ever since his debut novel Trainspotting, the man who dragged Scottish literature’s proud tradition for dialect into the murky modern world has been associated with heroin addicts, pill poppers and alcoholics. But his more substantial works – 2001’s epic, generation-spanning Glue and Trainspotting’s 2002 sequel Porno – are more concerned with the nature of male fraternity and the enduring loyalties (and resentments) of shared childhoods than ‘wee bags of broon’ or hooliganism. For all the menace and debauchery that makes Welsh a compelling novelist for men in particular, it is his ability to show the bonds and tensions that keep us together that lies at the heart of his appeal. Essential reading: Trainspotting, Glue, Porno
3. Ian McEwan: The man they called ‘Ian Macabre’ in his early career likes to take male characters to very dark places. From the father who loses his daughter in a supermarket in The Child in
Time to the victim of an obsessive stalker in Enduring Love, McEwan shackles his accomplished thinkers and scientists with that very male quality, arrogance. More often than not this intellectual bravado is played out against cruel twists of fate and irrational enemies, like the unstable Baxter from Saturday, in plots that climax in a version of an old-fashioned shoot-out. Essential reading: The Cement Garden, Amsterdam, Saturday
4. John Updike: Updike understood better than any other writer what Mike Skinner of The Streets labelled ‘a man’s burden’: that unquenchable inner belief that on some level we deserve – and are able – to bed pretty much any woman we want. Updike’s protagonists are selfish, self-centred adulterers bed-hopping around middle class suburbia behind their wife’s back, but in his lyrical prose, he manages to capture what we so often struggle to make woman understand: the depths to which we desire them, the complexity of our fascination with them, and why sex is never too far from our minds. Essential reading: The ‘Rabbit’ Series, Couples, Villages
5. Martin Amis: So often is Amis in the news for offending somebody – religious groups, women, the elderly – that it’s easy to forget he’s primarily a novelist, and with his debut effort The Rachel Papers (1989) managed to provide the kind of insight into being a teenage boy that you’d have to combine every John Hughes film ever made to begin to match. The rest of his career continued the trend, with 1984’s Money and 2003’s Yellow Dog in particular tracings the failings and frailties of manhood in the writer’s unmistakable high-low brow style.