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Male bomb

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Don't be fooled by Benjamin Cavell's new book.

With its black-and-white cover shot of a bare-knuckled fighter, Rumble, Young Man, Rumble may well land in the obligatory display of Father's Day gifts near the front of the bookstore.

But buyer beware: This short story collection is not the kind of book your dad needs to be reading. It's meant for the young, who won't mind so much if its attitude outweighs its stamina.

Not that the writing's bad. For a debut author, the Harvard-educated Cavell shows considerable potential. He knows how to set a scene, and hits bull's-eyes with nearly every incidental detail.

The pages of Rumble, Young Man, Rumble (Knopf) virtually drip testosterone, each story a different insight into the male psyche. Cavell tackles his subject matter like an enraged linebacker, and often leaves a muddy field of questions in his wake. In "Balls, Balls, Balls" (how's that for subtlety?), an over-pumped sporting goods salesman confronts a rival paintball player -- and his own limitations. Logan Bryant, age 26, can bench-press 385, claims to be an ex-Navy SEAL and refers to all women as "sluts." His insecurities make the story an apt denunciation of our culture's shallowness, even if its characters could use more fleshing out.

The same is true of "All the Nights of the World," a tender little story about the son of a football star who takes his new girlfriend to meet his dad. Cavell starts to make noteworthy points about parental shortcomings, but ends the story before it gets off the ground. Daddy issues also figure into "The Art of the Possible," a rocky little narrative concerned with a governor's son who attempts a career in politics but loses his soul in the process.

Between these tales of boxers and body-builders, Cavell never settles on any revolutionary insights into the male animal. He assembles a captivating fraternity of masculine stereotypes, but too often leaves them benched and waiting for action.

Instead of shucking Rumble, Young Man, Rumble off as a Dad's Day gift, buy it for yourself. Smuggle it home in a plain brown wrapper and read it when your significant other is asleep. And once you figure out exactly what the author is trying to say about manhood, let me know.

Shelf Space is a weekly column on books and Atlanta's literary scene.

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