Greetings and welcome to Bro Bibles, a series in which I ruin my summer by reading the books your worst ex-boyfriend holds dear to his heart. It’s my hope that by engaging with these often problematic and rarely rewarding texts, I will save everybody else the trouble — and perhaps learn why they are so popular among my cursed gender.
I don’t know how well you recall the blogosphere of the early aughts, when everything had the garish DIY vibe of MySpace, LiveJournal or GeoCities. But it’s generally assumed, at least in the social media discourse built on the ruins of that ecosystem, that one ought to be nostalgic for the bygone days when a voice in the digital wilderness could capture a mood, along with an audience, simply by telling a few good stories.
The stories of Tucker Max, which went viral on his personal website in the years of post-9/11 malaise, the Iraq War, mass torture and hurricane Katrina, happen to trade on that kind of nostalgia. They recall a period of youthful invincibility specific to men of means and prospects — in this case, a vomitous gang of self-shitting louts enrolled at Duke Law. I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell is the first and most successful collection of these testicular legends, having sold more than a million copies even though, or because, the craven editor at Penguin who bought it never let a proofreader near it.
What you get is all the semi-literate punctuation and spelling you would’ve seen on your computer screen in 2002. Since these anecdotes are styled as if Max is unloading them on his buddies at the bar, he can’t pick a verb tense and stick with it, oscillating between the immediacy of the present (“Completely naked and covered in my own poop, I chuckle”) and the finality of the past (“I was permanently banned from ALL Embassy Suites”), sometimes in the space of a single sentence. As Max himself opines on the craft of writing, likening it to fellatio: “When done right, it’s amazing, but there are just so many ways it can go wrong, and when it goes wrong, it’s just not worth it.” You don’t say.
Max naturally has no problem playing the villain or being labeled an asshole; his blanket defense is that he recognizes and eargerly embraces this role. Condemnations of his aggressive womanizing and drunken malevolence are repurposed as back cover blurbs. Moments of assault are his proudest triumphs, as in this bit from a weekend of nihilistic tailgating for a college football game: “People started doing keg stands, which led to perhaps the defining moment of the trip. This one girl, who was ugly and a bitch (thus, didn’t have basic human rights) started doing one. Don’t ask me why I did this, because I have no idea why, but when she was upside down, legs spread apart, I punched her right in the vagina.” You hardly know how to shame a person who gleefully confesses this, nor the New York Times reviewer who found such material “highly entertaining.”
Instead of diving into the wormhole of Max’s trademark misogyny, then, let’s focus on the aspect of his narrative he’s most insecure about: its truthfulness. He is at pains to convince you that everything recounted in I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell is “fact,” that it “really happened” — that his life is so wild, it requires no embellishment. This, in combination with a love of maxims like “the bigger the lie, the more they believe,” and several vignettes that are plainly regurgitated urban legends (blumpkins, upper-deckers, etc.), has the effect of making you doubt virtually anything he puts on the page. Often, a new acquaintance shows up to have his skepticism demolished: “Man, I thought your stories were at least a little bullshit, but we haven’t even had a drink and we’re gonna run train,” one convert allegedly exclaimed. Regularly, Max reports that some individual in his orbit pronounced him “the funniest guy they’d ever met.”
After detailing a humdrum bout of idiocy at a gala hosted by the law firm where he worked one summer, he endeavors to corroborate his version of events by supplying an email about the evening he’d sent to his pals the Monday after — in effect reprinting the exact story he’s just told, only with a subject line header and date stamp at the top. “Now, as you can see, the email is exactly what happened,” he writes, as though he couldn’t be deceptive in an electronic letter or outright fabricate one; the dude actually thinks he can vouch for himself. “I don’t need to exaggerate or lie in my stories; they are funny enough as it is,” he concludes. Imagine if the Jackass crew made other people the victims of their stunts but never filmed anything and spent each episode swearing up and down that one of them stole a guy’s crutches or barfed on a woman during anal sex, and you start to get the picture.
Max neurotically demands that the reader serve as fact-checker, too: “The only reason I can tell you this next part is because the truth is an absolute defense to libel, and this particular event had a sober witness named Brian, who went to law school at Columbia. […] If you don’t believe this, find him and ask him about it.” It’s a bluff you can’t really call; the idea of getting in touch with every balding suit named Brian who attended Columbia Law around the turn of the millennium to verify a Tucker Max claim feels equally hopeless and asinine. Moreover, we learn from the author’s note that “unless a full name is used, all other names are pseudonyms.” So why bother with these worthless assurances? Maybe to deflect from the conflict of interest that arises when you’re dictating your own mythology.
Max wants you to know that he boozes and fucks like a beast, but, more importantly, he wants you to see him as an excoriating wit, someone slicing through posers and sluts with verbal swordplay. Yet, as anyone who’s been “shit-housed” knows, it’s easy to misremember your incoherent screaming as the height of cleverness. He splits people into two camps — those who “get” his “sarcasm,” which amounts to unprovoked amateur insult comedy, and those who “can’t take a joke.” I doubt if his targets were as stymied by his drollery as much as the fact that he was suddenly berating them for no reason, and each time he informs us that a gaggle of party-goers was in stitches over his antics, it’s easier to visualize them laughing at him, not with.
The deeper you get in the book, the more notorious Max becomes, and the more his performative rage is expected. He realizes, with a modicum of celebrity, that he can push the limits of depravity, and indeed will disappoint friends and fans if he doesn’t drink himself into a hostile freak, start a few fights, get kicked out of a casino, and heckle overweight strangers. Eventually, it’s clear that anyone not passingly white, male, and reasonably well-off is a likely enemy; he mocks the poor (“crackheads”), the disabled (“cripples”), girlfriends and sex workers, meanwhile betraying profound racial anxieties with throwaway identifiers like “the low-rent Tupac” and stretches of “ghetto” or pidgin dialect. The adjective “negro” appears.
There’s added fragility with regard to his own status. In a strip club sequence, barely a paragraph separates an assertion that he “had lots of cash” and another that he “was dirt poor,” while glancing allusions to his wealthy father’s “connections” lack his customary bravado. The most shattering episode, in Max’s view, is when “a random gay guy” in a club convinced him that he’d had intercourse with a post-op trans woman at a certain point in his dubious sexual history. “I DID NOT FUCK A FAKE WOMAN!” he yells, then admitting to us: “I was in SHOCK. I could not sleep or function for the next two days, as I went over every detail I could remember about this ‘girl.’” Brilliant use of scare quotes from a “man” who struggles to format dialogue. He retains a best friend known as “SlingBlade,” a woman-abhorring nerd who sounds like patient zero of today’s incel culture, as if to have both a favorable basis of comparison and a canvas for psychological projection — the guy who can’t function thanks to his “issues with women.” At this juncture I will have to relate, apropos of whatever else, that nowhere in this erotic odyssey do we encounter cunnilingus or a female orgasm. I encourage those who think I’m wrong to provide an example of either, seeing as it’s bound to be worse than nothing at all.
In a turn he’d mistake for irony, Max’s entertainment career past 2009, when a film adaptation of I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell flopped underneath his “bad decisions,” hints that the sleazy, hyper-douche nostalgia of “dick lit” or “fratire” may haunt his future. First, he officially retired from his performance art as the guy nobody wants to run into on a Saturday night in South Beach, ostensibly paving the way for a rebrand as an enlightened relationship consultant, not to mention marriage and a kid. He would later be congratulated for having the common sense to fire himself as CEO of his publishing startup and questioned on his curious involvement in Tiffany Haddish’s memoir, explaining to Jezebel in the midst of the #MeToo movement that nothing he ever wrote was sexist because women also read it. His website was last updated in 2016, and despite a legion of 300,000 Twitter followers, he rarely posts there, to little engagement. Is it possible that his model of success did fully die out with Web 1.0? That’d be pretty epic, bro.