The Great Man Theory by Teddy Wayne book review

Meet Paul, the protagonist of Teddy Wayne’s boring, static new work The Great Man Theory. The 46-year-old has published extensive essays on esoteric subjects while also working as a writing lecturer at a mediocre New York college. He’s a bundle of contradictions, self-assured in his Marxist views — with a little Nietzsche on his side, they mate here — but still weak-kneed years after a divorce from his aspiring wife. He negotiates the disillusionment of middle age while intermittently raising a 12-year-old daughter, Mabel, and channeling his aspirations into The Luddite Manifesto,‘ his first commissioned manuscript. He can’t afford a brownstone in swanky Park Slope, so he’s headed for a walkable fourth floor in a less desirable area. Inside, he seethes with financial and professional envy. That means: he is a typical one Homo literatus brooklynensis.

Set in the pre-pandemic Trump years (though, as with Paul’s last name, Wayne never specifically identifies the former president), The Great Man Theory is a difficult project from the start: A middle-aged white male writer tells the story of a middle-aged white male writer. To his credit, the author digs into his character with enthusiasm. Wayne struggles to keep up with the times: Paul is easily upset, quick to blame his frustration on profit-hungry corporations and Instagram algorithms, and thwarting Mabel and his mother, and even Jane, his ex-wife the invoice. He embodies the weaknesses and boredom of his demographic, but Wayne doesn’t know what to do with him.

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Written in short, lively chapters, some as short as a paragraph, the novel follows Paul as he is demoted to an adjunct (less salary and more tuition). In need of money, he gives up his cradle in Brooklyn and moves to the Bronx to live with his widowed mother. She’s found love with her eighty-year-old Marvin and a cable news station modeled after Fox News; there’s even a Sean Hannity-like expert looming in the background. Paul is determined to finish his book and launch the golden academic career that has so far eluded him. He takes a second job and drives a rental car; he forms a dubious mentor-like relationship with a bright student; he woos a producer at the network to pull off a far-fetched plan. Wayne insists we see all the flashing red lights while Paul riffs on phone screens, bourgeois vanities and the voters brought a crazed conman into the White House.

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So The Great Man Theory is a character study. Wayne is at his best turning down the temperature, exploring the nuances of the parent-child bond as she sneaks up on Paul and surprises him with her unmistakable love. (There is always ambiguity in Paul’s relationships.) As he notes of his daughter, “the raw magic of her existence had not yet faded; he was a fool for her, still smiling the moment he saw her face. . . It opened a Mabel-sized space in his heart, an unexpectedly warm spot on a freezing lake.” That generous pulse spans generations as Paul grasps his mother’s life arc, which was marred by the Depression and World War II: “You had been a decent mother to him as a child – if not very loving or supportive enough by modern helicopter parenting or even boomer standards,” Wayne writes, “an understudy who never quite embraced the role, enmeshed in the crippling ones thought patterns, rigid behaviors and emotional rigors of the grueling decade in which she was born.”

But these moments trickle through your fingers like sand. Trouble is, Wayne can’t (or refuses) to take his protagonist out of idle: Paul is stuck in a self-esteem rut, grinding his gears. He always gets in his own way. It feels like a missed opportunity: Wayne could have danced a tango with Paul by deftly spinning and dipping him, but instead he pushes the guy into the corner of his isolation, “his solo movies, his weekends, climbing the archival mountains.” New York Book Review. . . he longed for his chair, his record player, a book and a glass of peaty Scotch. . . He had more or less achieved his goal of not doing things.”

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The theory behind “The Great Man Theory” is a not great man. Even as Paul’s life changes mid-novel, Wayne patronizes his protagonist, reducing him to a cultural cliché that, while rooted in truth, remains flat on the page. Wayne occasionally writes captivating sentences, but for the most part the novel wobbles along with clunky, adverb-blasting sentences. The plot grows ever more elaborate, weighed down by Paul’s obsession with fame. We’re waiting for a payout that never lands. If Paul had been given space to mature, to breathe, Wayne might have created a character more relevant to our times. Unfortunately, too often we try to mimic Paul’s own instinct: “He couldn’t read more than a page without slipping into a mental escape hatch.”

Hamilton Cain is the author of This Boy’s Faith: Notes from a Southern Baptist Upbringing and Editor of Contributing Books at Oprah Daily. He lives in Brooklyn.

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Chris Estrada

Chris Estrada is a 24ssports U.S. News Reporter based in London. His focus is on U.S. politics and the environment. He has covered climate change extensively, as well as healthcare and crime. Chris Estrada joined 24ssports in 2021 from the Daily Express and previously worked for Chemist and Druggist and the Jewish Chronicle. He is a graduate of Cambridge University. Languages: English. You can get in touch with me by emailing:

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