Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Book Review: Gut Check, by Tarek Saab

“Every man who knocks on the door of a brothel is looking for God.”

- Gut Check, p. 87 (attributed to G.K. Chesterton)

While its dust-jacket description as a “distinctly modern-day Confessions” somewhat overstates the case, Gut Check: Confronting Love, Work, & Manhood in Your Twenties a recent book by overnight celebrity Tarek Saab – embodies the same passion and spirit which motivated Saint Augustine (and countless men in every generation of Christendom) to seek the true measure of manhood in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. While literary merit and theological profundity set the two works apart, nevertheless the experience described in each is essentially the same, making this relevant and accessible restatement of the universal condition of man a welcome addition to the world of Catholic letters. The basic gist of the book is aptly captured by the above quotation (referenced on page 87 of the book). As with Augustine, so with Mr. Saab: each man will seek happiness in his own day (cf. Aristotle) and will seek it either in the world or things beyond.

I can anticipate from some quarters the question, “Why not just read Confessions?” Well, everyone should; but that’s not the point. I’ll address this question by way of reviewing the book, thus hopefully outlining what I perceive to be its value for engaging the modern world and the present course of conflict between God and mammon.

Truth be told, I didn’t know quite what to expect when this book arrived in the mail. I couldn’t even remember having ordered it: a sign either of God’s Providence or of the dangers of online credit-card purchasing. Nevertheless, the book was waiting for me on Monday when I arrived home for my day off. Having left behind the other four books I’m currently reading, I figured I’d give it a whirl, suspending my usual apprehensions which usually attend any consideration of a work written after Walker Percy’s death in 1991. By Monday night, I had finished half the work. By Tuesday evening, I was done. This timeline illustrates the first benefit of the book. I am an average-paced reader. That I finished this book in two afternoons is a testimony to its engagement of the reader, and the ease with which even a non-bookworm type can approach it. So, on the grounds of literary “weight” alone, I can say that there is nothing inhibitive about the book that would make me hesitate to recommend it to the average high-school guy (... on “gal,” more to be said).

Now, to delve beyond the superficial into the content-based merits which earn the book commendation. First, it’s relevant. Now, I’m sure someone will object, “Confessions is relevant, too!” And I would agree. But the relevancy of Confessions must be engaged in a manner which is frankly arduous for the average teenage/twenty-something guy in American today. I can testify to this personally. I was something of a geek in high school when I first tried to read Augustine, as a Junior. And despite the complete irrelevance that much of contemporary culture had for me in my geekdom, Augustine was still somewhat esoteric even for someone as detached as me. This is not simply a matter of literary difficulty, either; I was reading existential philosophers and Dostoyevsky at the time, too. But when Saab mentions cultural facts like Tupac and Madden ’04, he achieves a relevancy which is disarming and easily accessed. Both Tarek’s autobiography and Augustine’s share pages with any guy’s, growing up in any age; but the identification with the pages of Tarek’s story are ostensibly less of a jump from a modern kid’s life experience.

The most fascinating part of Tarek’s story is the paradoxical lack of satisfaction which he discovered with every worldly “success.” Popularity at school, living the college “high life,” landing a dream-job right out of college: the world’s landmarks on the road to happiness simply served to disturb Tarek about where the path was really leading. His philosophical search at each landmark brought him round to a consideration of his own mortality and the inevitable end of man, who is dust: and the question begging for his attention throughout the entire book is, “What then?”

The wisdom of Distributism and Catholic Social Teaching receives a convincing endorsement from Saab’s story. I would point out, however, that this isn’t the main trajectory of the book; on the whole, the central focus is spiritual. Saab observes, at the book’s conclusion, that he has articulated his search for ideal manliness into five distinct orientations, namely “the mental, spiritual, physical, emotional, and financial aspects of manhood” (p 188). Each of these aspects seems to form its own unique lens through which an individual reader might interpret and relate to the others; it shouldn’t surprise any reader of this blog if I say that the content impacted me mostly from the latter point of view, that is the financial.

Saab’s search for God was largely influenced by his experience in the environs of Corporate America; his life is a testament to the impact which economic realities have upon the deeper spiritual core of man, not only at the level of society, but of each individual. “You don’t bring an identity into Corporate America,” explains Saab. “An identity is given to you, one that is defined by conformity” (p 75).

The detachment from human “ends” which accompanies modern economic pursuits became an important factor in Saab’s search for his own, autonomous identity. He writes:

I was envious of [tradesmen’s and artisans’] opportunity to work with their hands, and to retire each night with a sense of singular accomplishment.... I wondered if it was that type of hands-on mastery I needed for satisfaction. My identity was far more ambiguous. I owned none of my tasks autonomously, yet still maintained responsibility for the large-scale outcome of broad departmental initiatives” (p 80).

Saab’s “gut check,” as he describes it, came when he was driving through the rural landscape of California and reflected on his detachment from the noble ends of man which made him, paradoxically, inordinately attached to the things of this world. He found himself aboard the hamster wheel of capitalistic consumerism, the theme song of which is, as Joseph Pearce observes, the Stones’ I Can’t Get No Satisfaction. Saab describes this experience wryly: “It was rather ironic: my boredom at work required that I look elsewhere for satisfaction; my lifestyle outside of the office demanded that I earn more money. This paradox incited in me a renewed hunger for wealth” (p 86).

Eventually, Saab discovered the Christian ideal of “detachment” as the answer to his struggles. Easier said than done, the philosophy is relatively simple, and is, in practice, merely a reversal of the structures which the socio-economic status quo impose upon modern man. Quoting Saab again (p 117): “I began to realize that the power we seek in the form of wealth and title and material possessions isn’t power in the purest form. Power isn’t having the world at your fingertips; it is having the world at your fingertips and being able to give it up!”

Saab’s breadth of academic experience and personal reading provide an entertaining narrative filled with pop culture references, sports trivia, and an abundance of quotes from patristic and literary sources. Given the richness and depth and variety in the narrative, I began to wonder whether I wasn’t simply imposing my own interpretation on the work and perceiving a minor strain as a major theme. I felt vindicated , though, (and somewhat surprised) when I found Saab quoting at length from, of all people, Dr. Peter Chojnowsky! From page 183:

“Since man spends most of his days working, his entire existence becomes hollowed out, serving a purpose which is not of his own choosing nor in accord with his final end. In regard to the entire question of a ‘final end,’ if we are to consider Capitalism from a truly philosophical perspective, we must ask of it the most philosophical of questions. Why? What is the purpose for which all else is sacrificed, what is the purpose of continuous growth? Is it for growth’s sake? With Capitalism, there is no ‘saturation point,’ no condition in which the masters of the system say that the continuous growth of corporate profits and the development of technological devices has ceased to serve the ultimate, or even the proximate, ends of mankind. Perhaps the most damning indictment of economic liberalism... it its inability to answer the question ‘Why?’”

In the end, the work proves a valuable source of Christian (and Distributist!) wisdom for any modern guy engaged in the pursuit of the truly human ends of earthly existence. Which brings me back to that one point I left hanging: I've said that this is really a book for “guys.” Personally, I view this as a great endorsement for Gut Check and a compliment to its author. Men admittedly are a hard audience to reach with the printed word outside a sports bracket. But Saab is a man’s man. He understands the empty and really emasculating paradigms of manhood offered by contemporary society; and he also understands the difficulty in a paradigm shift to Gospel ideals. I’m not saying that there’s nothing for the ladies in this book; I’m just endorsing it as a particularly worthwhile book for the modern guy. Saying it's a "guy book" should provide a woman reader (whom I could see wincing at the title itself) with a “category” within which to approach to story.

There is a place in the book where Saab quotes a series of interviews done by Esquire in 2006, when 25-year old men were asked to share their thoughts on manhood. One respondent provided the following consideration:

“I still liked the things I liked when I was a kid – breakfast cereal, Quantum Leap reruns, action figures. I don’t feel like I could raise a child, care for a wife, or do manual labor. This is what made you a man in 1950. Lord knows what makes you one now” (p 109).
Indeed, the Lord does know – just as He’s always known. But, just as in the 1950s there were men on the street who likewise knew the measure of a man, so are they such men now. Tarek Saab is one of those men. So, if there’s a man in your life who doesn’t quite measure up, perhaps you would do well to introduce him to Tarek’s book. After all, maybe all he needs is a “gut check.”

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