The novel traces the lives of the characters from the end of their college years to their early 30s. There's Mark, whose graduate study of the Russian Revolution flounders as he is lured by free porn at the library. There's Sam, who sets out to write the great Zionist epic despite the fact he's never been to Israel and can't speak Hebrew. And then there's Keith, a Harvard graduate and liberal commentator trying to succeed. (Yes, much like Gessen himself.)
At times, the novel doesn't seem to know whether to make fun of these men or admire them for their effort and ambition. Rather than parody, the novel more often seems like upper-middle-class whining by men of privilege, with too much education and too little humility. The Keith character: "I was ready to rearrange myself, if that's what it took. Because the plans that I'd had for myself had faltered, somewhere, and I could not tell why. Does he who fights douchebags become, inevitably, something of a douchebag? I don't know. Maybe." (Answer: Yes, he does.)
On the redeeming side, the book reminds us -- perhaps inadvertently -- of two important lessons. First, it's folly to think we have all the answers. Second, it's a privilege to ask the big questions of life. (Hungry people don't have the time; the only ones who do are "literary" men like Gessen.)
Perhaps this novel succeeds in describing the alienation and ambition of privileged Americans in the 21st century. And Gessen's prose certainly conveys the frenetic pace of modern life with its quick, fragmented sentences. But as literature, Literary Men isn't dramatic, funny or insightful. It's just a story about douchebags.