Sam Sattin's new novel, League of Somebodies (Dark Coast Press, $18.95), doesn't really get started until a father, Fearghas, explains to his teenage son, Lenard, that he's destined for greatness:
"The truth is," Fearghas said. "I've been preparing you for a non-stop life. One full of danger and triumph... I've been altering your once-stupid future... I'm making you into the next Gud-Damned Superman, for the sake of all sakes."
Lenard's response is delightfully bland:
"But, why would I want to be the next Superman?" Lenard asked.
"I'm failing all my classes. I'm terrible at sports. I don't even read comics. I guess I like Superman, but don't know much about him save for the fact that he can fly."
The conversation, couched though it is in Sattin's stilted, hyperstylized language, lays plain the ambition and the theme behind Somebodies: It's about the relationship between a father and a son, and the way that relationship affects fathers of a next generation of sons. The last book I encountered that was this obsessed with what it means to be a man was Michael Chabon's collection Manhood for Amateurs. (It's probably not an accident that Somebodies reads like it could have been written by Chabon at the beginning of his career, back when his mellifluous moments were just as beautiful but less consistent, and when his adoration of popular culture was still cowed by his desire to be considered a Serious Literary Genius.) The characters are even obsessed with an ancient Bible of Manliness called The Manaton, a guidebook full of ridiculous advice on manhood and heroism that begins: "I, am Man. Man. Morphus. Manicus. Phallus. Testes. Prostate. MAN. I am Man."
Somebodies drifts through decades of Fearghas's and Lenard's lives as Lenard struggles with the superheroic life and tries to raise his own son, Nemo, without making the same mistakes Fearghas made. (Somebodies, it must be said, drifts a little too aimlessly at times. Besides Jennifer Natalya Fink's razor-sharp Thirteen Fugues, local publisher Dark Coast Press's titles are all in need of some drastic editorial cuts.) The heroic acts are presented with a cautious brand of banality, which is a relief; there have been too many mediocre superhero riffs lately, possibly inspired by Chabon's Pulitzer win for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and/or by the popularity of The Incredibles, and Sattin never once falls prey to mediocrity. But he's thankfully good-natured enough about the inherent ridiculousness of the premise to embrace dialogue like this: "Your legs are not anchors, they are rockets—NOW STARE DOWN THE DARK PIT OF DEATH AND FIGHT!"
But do we need another book about what it means to be a man? Walk through almost any section in almost any general-interest bookstore and tally up the masculine names and the feminine ones, and you'll find a patriarchal imbalance that will shock you. So the answer to that question is, obviously, no. But there's always room for another book on a seemingly exhausted subject, as long as it brings something new and vibrant and forward-thinking to the discussion. League of Somebodies has exactly all of those qualities.