Years, or maybe decades from now, I can see myself bragging about how I actually knew Thomas Page McBee while he was wrapping up this epic account of his unique life experience. I’ll tell friends at dinner parties and in media plenary sessions about how we worked together at the Boston Phoenix for two years before the paper folded, both as writers but with him also in an editorial role, and I’ll boast that Thomas helped sculpt my first book while he was finishing his monumental memoir.
I’ll probably talk about how downright floored I am by Thomas’s bravery. How I’ve respected his naked questioning of gender role prescriptions since before his authorial debut, back when he was writing as a correspondent through the years for Vice, Salon, and BuzzFeed. By the time I say all this out loud, Thomas Page McBee will likely be a ubiquitous name in literary circles, and folks will scratch their chins as I remind them that before Man Alive was assigned to every high school student in the land, such stories of staggering transgender triumph hadn’t yet become part of the American narrative.
Mostly, I will praise Thomas’s fearless, almost musical style, which pulls you in with hugs and headlocks. In his harrowing journey to the core of personhood — from New England, to California, to South Carolina, to the Pittsburgh of his youth — he brings you underneath his ballcap each time he pulls it down to evade goons who wish to hurt him. At the same time, Thomas makes it just as easy to share in his achievements as he comes of age, cools his rage, and learns to throw a punch from a guy with a pickup truck. His tribulations lead Thomas to discover that “a good man is hard to find.” No doubt, but he’s a damn good writer, too, and that may be even harder to find.
There’s one thing I won’t say when name-dropping Thomas to my grandchildren: That while I knew McBee professionally at the Phoenix, his book revealed a different character altogether. That’s not the case. Sure, I was unaware of specific background details, like of his life-altering street mugging in Oakland and how he arrived at the name Thomas. But the truth is that between his confidence in the newsroom and the way he penned such personal stories without begging for sympathy — a mark of the most mature kind of author there is – I always had a feeling Thomas would eventually produce work as colossal, as important as Man Alive. That’s my story now, and that’s what I’ll say when the day comes that people find out I know Thomas Page McBee, and ask what it was like to work with a man who’s brought such inspiration to so many.
THOMAS PAGE MCBEE READS FROM MAN ALIVE. BROOKLINE BOOKSMITH, 279 HARVARD AVE. MON 10.27. 7PM/FREE/ALL AGES. BROOKLINEBOOKSMITH.COM