When the comic video “Arlington: The Rap” conquered YouTube three years ago, one line that got big laughs was the tough guy’s reference to “my book club.”
Last week I had the privilege—without a lick of preparatory reading—of being a barfly on the wall at one of those rare literary phenomena—an all-male book club.
For 13 years now, a gang of 10 fifty-and-sixty-something professionals in the East Falls Church/Westover neck of Arlington have been escaping wives every six weeks for a rough-and-tumble evening of…nonstereotypical masculine bonding.
Sometime this spring the club will discuss its 100th book. (The proof? A complete list). Book clubbers nationwide number some five million, according to Slate, but this cabal stands out for its focus, chuckles and civility.
At eight on this Tuesday night, the guys in jeans and sneakers—no career wardrobes—assembled in the host’s living room after his wife, before departing, exerted quality control on a spread of beer, chips, dip, crudités and beer. (One-upping previous hosts on refreshments is frowned upon.)
Tonight’s topic is Richard Russo’s rollicking campus satire “Straight Man.” Selection of the book is generally the province of the upcoming host, who shows some mercy by factoring in availability at libraries. Choices rotate between fiction and nonfiction, history and biography, funny and dark.
The conversation gets right down to business. Russo would be thrilled to hear host Tom Dunlap call his novel “a great character study” and Dan Levin say “he did a fine job capturing a sense of place.”
Not all authors fare as well. “If the conversation starts out about sports, you know no one liked the book,” says Bob Destro. Members balked at the experimental memoir of Dave Eggers. And the club’s unanimously miserable reaction to E. Annie Proulx’s “The Shipping News” launched a skepticism toward female authors (though 11 made the list).
Most women would not like “Straight Man,” says Mark Greenwood. He wagers that the percentage of members who show up actually having read the books is higher in this club than in those attended by the wives.
Notes on nifty Russo phrasings were compiled by Nick Acheson, an original member who has also prepared a painstaking analysis of patterns in the group’s literary choices. The list includes, for example, two books by brothers, two books by accused plagiarists, and two by authors who attended one of the Arlington club’s meetings.
Early on, the group learned the hard way that assigning books only by title risked having members read three books by different authors all under the title “Endurance.” Now, more details are specified. Acheson also confesses that his wife once caught him, as he prepared to host, shortcutting cleanup duty by hiding dirty pots and pans in the car.
Time pressures feel minimal. “We all look forward to it, and attendance is usually high,” says Levin. (Failure to show might mean you’re the next host.) “The nucleus has been together since our kids were in elementary school,” he adds. “We’ve been together through things other than book club,” such as PTA and youth basketball.
“Despite a wide spectrum of interests and life-experiences, the atmosphere is respectful and genuinely joyful,” says Mike Violette. “The club mostly reflects the left-leaning sensibilities of Arlington demographics. I’ve come to appreciate the sincerity and personal sharing. It’s all about the camaraderie.”