When I was a senior in college, I was one of 10 men who lived in a nine-bedroom house affectionately referred to as “The Hate.” We were not a literary bunch. All my housemates were studying for business or law careers and rarely read more than was needed to get good grades (if that). But there were two non-academic books nearly all of us read: Tucker Max’s I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell and The Game by Neil Strauss.
In fact, almost every guy on my freshman-year dorm floor read Max’s book within months of matriculating in the fall of 2006 and revered Max the way their grandfathers might have Hemingway. The book was all anecdotes of Max getting ridiculously drunk, insulting friends and strangers, sleeping with beautiful women, getting in fights, committing petty crimes and having all kinds of hedonistic, consequence-free adventures. Max lived the exact kind of life many of us fantasized for ourselves during college — one filled with booze and sex and devoid of responsibility or shame — and his book seemed like a guide to achieving it.
The Game came three years later when I was living in the aforementioned Hate. Someone left a copy on the bathroom floor for anyone to thumb through while on the toilet, and soon our house was dominated with talk about the pick-up artist subculture Strauss immersed himself in and eventually mastered. None of us became pickup artists, although one housemate swore by some of The Game’s lessons. He was particularly fond of Strauss’s body language tips and the “three-second rule,” which states you have only that much time to approach a woman after the thought first enters your mind. After that, any advance is creepy. That roommate did get laid a lot that semester, but it might’ve had more to do with the rumor about his enormous dick (a rumor he himself planted).
Max and Strauss were like Bukowski for non-literary guys of my generation; authors whose lives served as hypermasculine ideals. And now, 10 years hence, both men have released new books about leaving behind their former fuccboi ways and becoming the kind of men women always wanted them to be.
The Truth, Strauss’ follow-up to The Game, opens with him en route to sex addiction rehab after being caught cheating on his girlfriend, Ingrid, with one of her friends. There, Strauss encounters Joan, the program’s Puritanical leader who pathologizes any sexual behavior that occurs outside a monogamous relationship. Strauss bristles at Joan’s sex negativity, especially after he learns sex addiction isn’t even recognized by the American Psychological Society. “Am I sex addict? I’m a fucking man,” Strauss reasons from inside rehab. “Men like to have sex. That’s what we do.”
Instead, Strauss embraces the opposite extreme: He embarks on a quest to find an alternative relationship format that suits his specific needs — namely, to forge deep emotional connections but retain the freedom to sleep with whomever he wants.
Strauss positions his escapades as stops on an emotional journey, but it’s hard not to see that as a cheap rationalization for indulging his every fantasy. He attends a conference for tantric polyamorous couples but is turned off by the group’s Byzantine rules and the flabby old men jerking themselves off on to women they hardly know. He bumbles through a series of group sex encounters — a swingers party in Corey Feldman’s Las Vegas hotel suite; an orgy in an exclusive, underground “switch” club in Paris; sex with a married woman while her husband cheers them on — but none are satisfactory. Later, Strauss forms a harem with three women, but is astounded when they succumb to jealousy. Apparently, it never occurred to Strauss that a relationship between multiple people might be magnitudes more complicated than monogamy.
Eventually Strauss finds a girlfriend who agrees to an open relationship, but he soon learns he doesn’t have the stomach for that either. He’s emasculated when she’s dominated by another man at a group BDSM party and is overcome with envy when he witnesses her flirting.
“And that’s when I realize, I don’t actually want an open relationship,” Strauss writes. “I just want a half-open relationship. It’s completely unreasonable: I want to be with whomever I want while my partner is stuck with me.”
Strauss’s grand revelation is not that he’s been pursuing the wrong kinds of relationships; it’s that he’s been a selfish asshole. “I may never experience true happiness, love and family if I keep trying to do things my way,” he writes. The book ends with Strauss marrying Ingrid, pledging to be faithful.
It’s a rather tidy ending for our protagonist, who by the start of the book has already had sex with more women than the average straight man could even dream of sleeping with in a lifetime. Ingrid asked nothing of Strauss other than to be faithful, and he responded by fucking her friend. He then makes a half-hearted effort at rehab and goes on a yearlong sex tour before running back into her eager arms. Strauss’s ambivalence is relatable but his embarrassment of riches aren’t.
Still, The Truth makes for an entertaining, enlightening read. Aside from the tantric polyamory meetup, where he merely judges from the sidelines, Strauss approaches each dating subculture with genuine interest. The journey is filtered through a first-person narrative style that, while cliched at times, is incisive, heart-wrenching and witty.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Max’s new book, Mate, which is plodding and uninformative for anyone who took PSYCH 100 in college and has read a glossy men’s magazine before. This isn’t entirely Max’s fault, as Mate is a self-help book co-authored by University of New Mexico psychologist Geoffrey Miller. Max’s forte is as a memoirist, and the devilish humor that made him a New York Times bestseller is largely absent.
Whereas The Truth deals in Freud, Mate trades entirely in Darwin. The book’s goal is to help men improve their “fitness” so they can become more desirable to women in different “mating markets.” The complexities of contemporary romantic life are apparently rooted in male-female interactions from 100,000 years ago. Mate contains such revelatory pieces of wisdom as “Ask her about her interests, ambitions, friends, background — anything that requires some social intelligence to appreciate beyond her ‘hot girl’ persona.” The chapter devoted to grooming and style tells men they should wash their faces, trim their toenails, shower regularly and wear clean, well-fitting clothes.
Mate is so reductive it seems intended for straight men who have never had a meaningful interaction with a woman before, let alone a relationship — adolescent boys just starting to date, or socially inept, quasi-misogynistic loners who resent women for not wanting to fuck them. That is, it’s ideal for the emotionally and socially stunted man likely to idolize Max. A woman spotted me reading Mate in a bar and called it “feminism for assholes,” which was apt.
The generalizations Mate makes about women vary from mildly condescending to infuriating and dangerous. “Women are vicious to each other about slut-shaming,” Mate reads, as if men have no role in the matter. All women secretly wish to be dominated in bed, the book advises. Women with tattoos are more likely to go home with you. And finally, don’t worry about her sexual pleasure. “Often, the best way for you to give her [a sexual connection] is to just enjoy the hell out of her, without worrying too much about whether she comes.”
At one point the book makes a well-intentioned effort to explain how terrifying dating is for heterosexual women, but even that comes off as vaguely homophobic. Mate encourages readers to imagine themselves a gay man surrounded by other gay men who are “all bigger, stronger, faster and hornier than you. … Any one of them could grab you, carry you out of the bar and put who knows what God knows where and there is little you could do to stop them. … This is what it is like for women every day, in every social situation, with straight guys like you.”
Primitive as the advice may be, Mate does represent an evolution for Max. He implores the reader to not feel ashamed about struggling with depression; to not have that fourth whiskey; to handle rejection calmly; to stop thinking of sex as an end itself but rather a component of a healthy relationship; and to stop “pulling a Houdini [after sex] like some kind of asshole.” The old Max would’ve called this man a pussy, slammed a tequila shot, had lackadaisical sex with the guy’s sister and never called her again. In Mate, Max urges readers to resist his old archetype.
“Real women are attracted to displays of real altruism — empathy, thoughtfulness, generosity and self-sacrifice — that deliver concrete benefits to people in need,” Mate reads. Such language is pretty rich for an author whose second book was titled Assholes Finish First.
What made Max and Strauss so alluring to immature young men is they lived their lives with an utter disregard for others. Strauss had no qualms reducing seduction to a formula, oblivious to the emotional cost, and Max never apologized for anything, whether it was accidentally shitting in a hotel lobby or asking a woman to leave through the bedroom window because he worried his roommates might not find her attractive. A couple of straight, white cis-bros leveraging their privilege to full effect.
As writer-editor Max Read noted in a recent episode of MEL’s “The Rewatch” podcast, what made Fight Club antagonist Tyler Durden so irresistible to straight men was his unabashed bravado. “As a 16-year-old boy in high school, the funniest people are the biggest assholes,” Read explains. “It’s only when you grow up that you realize as funny as those guys might be, that’s not a way you want to live your life.”
And now Max and Strauss have uncovered the same truth for their readers: The only way to forge a meaningful, lasting relationship is through sacrifice and selflessness. Living life wholly on your terms means a life lived alone.
John McDermott is a Staff Writer at MEL. He previously wrote about a pair of Boston brothers that won millions playing fantasy football.