Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey

For some of us, Matthew McConaughey will always be the guy whose 2015 commencement speech, packaged as a motivational talk, has reached well over 13 million views on YouTube. Yes, yes, we fell for his easy twang, his caramel-colored charm, his pectorals in How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, but it was his take on the difference between joy and happiness (one, you see, is a state, while the other is a response) that stopped us in our tracks. So perhaps the least surprising thing about McConaughey’s first book, Greenlights, is that it begins with a bombardment of one-liners that, depending on how far you live from Hollywood, sound like Confucius after a few too many Michelobs. Reminiscent at times of David Brooks’s celebrated distinction between the résumé and the eulogy, McConaughey writes as Brooks might if the New York Times columnist were an unbuttoned Texan wild man who’d gotten arrested for playing the bongos naked.

“I never wrote things down to remember,” our hero tells us early on; “I always wrote things down so I could forget.” It’s not a terrible line, and it prepares us for the mix of raucous anecdotes and bumper-sticker maxims extracted from 35 years of diary-keeping that follow. The fact that many of the aphorisms make no sense at all suggests that the actor really did write every last word himself. The runaway voice that keeps the pages flying past—“I’ve had four concussions from falling out of four trees, three of them on a full moon”—reminds us that this is a frat-boy La Rochefoucauld who seems wonderfully impossible to embarrass.

Bumper-sticker maxims aside, McConaughey has earned his stripes in films such as 2013’s Dallas Buyers Club.

Some of us—at least, my 89-year-old mother and I—had decided McConaughey was the real thing long before he lost 47 pounds to score an Academy Award for his performance in Dallas Buyers Club and started improvising motivational speeches in a Scorsese film. It wasn’t just that he evinced a blend of slickness and self-mockery that made him ideal for the defense attorney he’d once wanted to be in real life. (Playing one in A Time to Kill had jump-started his career as surely as playing one in The Lincoln Lawyer breathed new life into it.) It wasn’t just that in place of the tough but sensitive guy in the Brando mold he gave us a cool but sententious dude like no one but himself. It was that he clearly had more gas in the tank than he could ever use in Ghosts of Girlfriends Past; the man himself, here described as a “prescriptive etymologist,” could see that, instead of being more interesting in life than on the screen, he could try to reverse the equation.

Surviving Success

McConaughey’s certainly got a lot to work with. His parents married three times, having divorced each other twice. His father, he tells us at the outset, broke his mother’s middle finger four times; true to his swaggering prediction, he also died while making love to her. Having hit an early jackpot in Hollywood, McConaughey decided to cruise to the beat of his own djembe, crisscrossing the country in a 1996 GMC Savana van equipped with a leopard-skin couch-bed, making voice recordings on his way to the next trailer park. His recipe for surviving success includes going on a 22-day trip to Mali that found him wrestling in a dirt pit with a village champion, having presented himself to the cheering locals as “a writer and a boxer.”

Ghosts of McConaugheys past: the actor’s parents, who married each other three times, raised him in Texas.

Part of the man’s charm is that he seems ready at every turn to present himself as a fool, and at its best moments, Greenlights, almost in spite of itself, delivers memorable life lessons. As a high-school senior, the man later nominated for Teen Choice’s 2003 award for “Choice Movie Liar” trades in his truck for a candy-red sports car and suddenly loses all the girls he used to go “off-road muddin’” with. As an exchange student in Australia, he’s told to go easy on the epigrams after observing, “The man who invented the hamburger was smart, but the man who invented the cheeseburger was a genius.” Having conquered Hollywood and learned “to distance myself from the bubbly mendacities of my recent rom-com emasculation,” he inscrutably elects to play the eponymous Beach Bum in a Harmony Korine film last year.

Greenlights begins with a bombardment of one-liners that sound like Confucius after a few too many Michelobs.

It’s true, many of his bons mots are so gnomic, I’m not sure a Zen master could unriddle them. “A fad is just a branch on cool’s trunk.” And, all of eight pages later: “Life is nobody’s proper noun, and there’s no ‘g’ on the end of livin’ because life’s a verb.” Guess I’ve been spelling it wrong all my life. Anyone who’s heard him explaining his “banging on my belly” while humming to a startled Terry Gross—or telling a graduating class that “no matter who’s in our bed, we all sleep alone”—will know some of this material already.

But nothing had prepared me for the scene in which his tough-guy old man delivers mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on his pet cockatiel after the beloved bird falls into the toilet. It would also turn out that McConaughey’s mother urged a remake of The Graduate with her taking the part of Mrs. Robinson to her youngest son’s Benjamin.

McConaughey was eight when he entered the Little Mr. Texas contest in Bandera.

The more I read, in fact, the more I came to think that the great redeeming grace of McConaughey, currently a professor of practice at the University of Texas, is his fearless lunacy; that’s the only way, he leads one to believe, that he’s managed to stay sane in Hollywood. In the end, it’s his very out-thereness, his inimitable whateverness, that takes him to places even Day-Lewis might fear to tread. You get the sense that he has no image he wishes to promote or defend and that he always remembers Dylan’s line “To live outside the law, you must be honest.”

Old Matthew ain’t quite Epictetus yet, and I don’t think he should quit his day job. But it’s McConaughey himself who informs us that he got straight F-minuses in his English classes, and won a writing competition in the seventh grade only by (at the suggestion of his kindergarten-teacher mother) copying out a published poem written by somebody else. This is surely the most entertaining and readable book any creative director of Wild Turkey bourbon will ever commit to print, and I confess that I found myself copying down 1 in every 30 of its aperçus. “We have to prepare for the job so we can be free to do the work,” he writes (discipline in the service of true freedom being a recurrent theme). And: “Too many options can make a tyrant out of any of us.” At a time when The Meaning of Mariah Carey, by Mariah Carey, is riding high on the best-seller list, there’s something rather liberating about a cheerful survivor telling us that he pleasures himself (quite literally) by thinking of Lord Byron before launching a few more well-intentioned darts at the meaning of life itself.

Pico Iyer is a columnist for AIR MAIL