Disposable Man Gets His Balls Back

What happens when the revolution doesn’t unfold as one expects and when disillusionment sets in? For Michael Levitin, who was a leader of the “leaderless” Occupy movement, it meant turning away from barricades and taking refuge in the love of writing, which came, in his case, from a place that preceded the love of revolution. In Disposable Man (Spuyten Duyvil; $16), when the narrator’s grandfather asks him, “What is it you like to do, which you can do?” he answers, “I like to write.” In this, his first novel, Levitin offers a complex narrative about a deracinated American pseudo-journalist named Max Krumm who goes through a mid-life crisis in twentieth-first century Europe and is reborn in a world in which borders collapse and history explodes.

“In theory, I spend my days researching and reporting the news, though in truth my hours are spent hovering online waiting for the news to reach me,” Krumm explains about one third of the way through his episodic account of his life. He adds, “I am never not waiting for the news because the screen has made an addict of me.”

A rather sad sack who smokes, drinks and bemoans his self-proclaimed identity as a “cuckold,” Krumm leaves Berlin, which serves as his base of operations, and heads into Eastern Europe where members of his Jewish family were persecuted by both fascists and communists. Poland isn’t an improvement on Germany. Indeed, “the Poles,” Krumm explains, cling “to the hurt, trapped, stagnant spirit of morose nostalgia that remains the Polish identity today.”

Krumm’s male ancestors weren’t “disposable,” though at least one of them was also a cuckold. They were too busy trying to survive genocide to worry, as he does, about the withering away of manhood.

In Eastern Europe, Krumm makes news of his own, especially when he encounters KGB agents. He also escapes from the prison house of his cuckold-ness and recharges his batteries, as he might say.

“I had my balls back,” he exclaims after a brief yet vital encounter with a Lithuanian archivist named Vitalya who is, he explains, “somewhat homey and somewhat attractive at the same time.”

Through Vitalya—who is more of an emblematical figure than a real character—Krumm finds meaning, finds himself and gives form to his shapeless life. His male friends, especially the fellow he calls “Kaiser,” are more fully developed than Vitalya or any other women characters. “I’m a refugee from the noxious headlines of a democracy that became a dictatorship,” Kaiser says. “I left America not to be devoured.” If nothing else, he provides a kind of wall that Krumm uses as a touchstone he can hold or reject as he pursues his own trajectory.

It’s the Kaiser who provides Krumm with a theory of the contemporary disposable man and the contemporary indispensible woman. He doesn’t say that men are “pussy-whipped.” But that’s what he thinks. Literary critic Megan Abbott uses the term “pussy-whipped” to describe the main character, Dix Steele—a World War II veteran-—in the brilliant noir novel In a Lonely Place (1947) by Dorothy B. Hughes that has recently been republished in a handsome new edition. Levitin might have borrowed the term “pussy-whipped” and inserted it in his own novel. It has more contemporary punch than “cuckold,” which sounds old-fashioned. Levitin uses other words, such as “Jewess,” which were been retired old ago.

Kaiser is a born complainer, a kvetch, as Krumm’s relatives might say and that’s part of his adolescent charm. On the subject of the contemporary woman, Kaiser explains, “She wants a career, she wants status and security and recognition…You and me…We’re on the backside of history, now, my man.” Krumm echoes Kaiser’s theory of the war between the sexes in which woman has won and man has lost. “I am a sick and disposable man,” Krumm says. “We’re all sick.” He adds, “I’m not whining, no, I’m only stating the facts and the fact is that the disposable man no longer has any arsenal at his disposal.” Except, one might add, misogyny.

When he campaigned for the presidency, Trump appealed to white men like Kaiser and Krumm who felt that they had been robbed of their inheritance and their rightful place in the world by women and by men of color. It’s seems odd to hear an ex-Occupy activist share the Trumpian perspective.

“The Kaiser had uber-male charisma,” Krumm explains. Not surprisingly, Kaiser’s charisma and misogyny rub off on Krumm. Whether the author, like the narrator, shares Kaiser’s beliefs isn’t clear, though the title of the book suggests that he does, at least in part.

In a recent interview with a woman reporter, Levitin explained, “In reality, I’m very feminist.” That may be so, but feminism isn’t at the core of his novel. “Never trust the teller, trust the tale,” D.H. Lawrence advised readers long ago. “The proper function of a critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it.” Lawrence added that no American feels he has escaped the mastery of Europe and that Americans have “imported patriarchal values.” Indeed, Europe masters Krumm and his patriarchal cronies.

Disposable Man is a novel of ideas, as well as a sociological fiction that dissects yuppified Berliners and ersatz online journalists, but it’s probably best not to take the ideas that the characters express too seriously. Indeed, the novel works when it offers images not ideas, or rather ideas expressed through images. “We’re the unhappy grandsons who put our grandfathers on our knees to tell us stories,” Kaiser tells Krumm.

Near the end of his journey, and after he has had redemptive sex with Vitalya, Krumm becomes soul. “I have walked in the fields of my fathers and I shall sleep in the bedroom of the dead,” he exclaims. It isn’t really the revolution, journalism or even great sex that gives meaning to his life but rather language.

The biographical note at the back of Disposable Man, says that Levitin was the co-founding editor of Occupied Wall Street Journal. While he was a key player in Occupy, he wasn’t a typical player or emblematic of the movement, though like many others in Occupy he’s Jewish and the son of Sixties radicals. Disposable Man doesn’t express an Occupy worldview, whatever that may be, but rather a fictional account of one man’s life and times in which the past has more meaning than the present and getting one’s “balls back” counts more than “play ball,” “balls to the wall” or “don’t get your balls in an uproar.”

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.