Boxing has inspired some fine sports literature, and McBee’s writing bristles with an elegant swagger as he dances around ideas and experiences of violence, and writes about the sexual abuse that he suffered at the hands of his stepfather from the age of four, so that he “couldn’t tell where my skin ended and his began”...So in staring into the whites of another man’s eyes as sweat and fists fly, then writing about it, Amateur is as much a reconciliation as an emancipation. This rumble in the gender jungle is punchy, thought-provoking stuff, though it may not be what fans of a fighter like the ear-biting Mike Tyson would expect from a book on boxing.
Writing during the presidential election of 2016, in what he refers to as a crisis of toxic masculinity, McBee is quick to delve into and unpack the nuances of masculinity, studying it through the lens of physical combat. But while it’s thought-provoking, Amateur does not quite reach the clarity for which he strives. McBee muddies his thesis – essentially, ‘manhood is ultimately what you want it to be’ – by using examples of how other men have attained their own masculinity as key reference points, confusing the boundaries between his personal journey and those of others.
He fills his account of training, and “passing” as male, with information from experts in various aspects of masculinity. A psychology professor tells him how adolescent boys’ close friendships start to be labelled “girlie” and “gay”. A neuroscientist explains that testosterone makes people “do whatever they need to maintain their status” – whether that is fighting or collaborating. But when men in experiments take a placebo, believing it to be testosterone, they become more aggressive even when that makes them lose.
McBee is better qualified than most to see the fronts people put on, and the vulnerability behind the bravado, and ultimately he decides: “I did not want to become a real man … I was fighting for something better.” This is an eye-opening story about gender and courage, and confirmation that there are many different fights to being a man.