BOOK REVIEW / Downturn in the guilt market: Giles Smith on a shrill and rather petty addition to the growing library of attempts to educate men in the art of self-defence - 'Not Guilty: In Defence of the Modern Man' - David Thomas: Weidenfeld, 8.99 pounds

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MEN ARE in pain, says David Thomas. The feminists have got them looking hunted, and they never knew how to express themselves anyway. We've had Robert Bly's Iron John (strongly recommending nude confrontation and shouting a lot as a means of emotional self- discovery), and we've had Neil Lyndon's No More Sex War, with its dark intimations of male separatism. And now here is Thomas with Not Guilty, completing a uniquely dodgy trilogy. Except that, in the marching band of the Men's Movement, David Thomas is somewhere near the back, on triangle. 'We're all human,' he says. 'In the end, we all work out about equal.' You will have come across more complex visions of the world in the sleeve notes on soul albums.

This means that Not Guilty is not the exercise in male hostility which some feminists will claim it is. Thomas isn't misogynist, he's just patronising (look at the candy-store adjectives he trots out whenever a woman enters these pages: 'slim, blonde, pretty and vivacious'; 'funny, attractive, flirtatious'; 'Anyway, the girl arrived, looking ravishing . . .') Actually, if he'd been more reactionary, the book might have been more fun. He only had to write a chapter called 'Treat 'em Rough, Keep 'em Sweet' and there would have been something for people to get properly wound up about. As it is, we're looking here at 270 poorly written and deeply uninspiring pages.

You can take your warning from that subtitle, 'In Defence of the Modern Man'. 'Modern Man' is the sort of tag that gets tossed about in men's style magazines and is, as such, an entirely useless concept. What sort of modern? What sort of man? Thomas was educated at Eton and Cambridge - well modern. 'Look round the dinner table at your friends,' he says, an instruction which neatly betrays the book's social frame. Later on, there's a hint of contempt for those who are not at the table; movie audiences are 'predominantly adolescent and brain-dead.' Aren't they just. More asparagus souffle, anyone?

'The research for this book took me from Hollywood to the Australian bush. I sat around half naked in a men's commune and I walked through the streets of Manchester in drag.' But Thomas is a journalist, and by far the more forceful shaping influences would have to be the lunches he mentions at Elle magazine, the chats in the green room at Granada television. It's hard to imagine a more media-conscious book than this. It seems to have been written to maximise the number of radio and television outlets on which Thomas can play the performing bear. The book is also media- bound. History is entirely absent from it, replaced by a pointlessly avid interest in magazines: 'In a much publicised article for Options magazine . . .'; 'In the American edition of GQ . . .'; 'According to a survey reported by Company magazine . . .'

As a result, what Thomas tackles is, for the most part, not feminism at all, but its most trivial off-shoots, its most ham-fisted paraphrasings. When the women's movement started, it wasn't essentially after the right to organise encounter groups. It had more basic needs in mind - like voting and the opportunity to get out of the kitchen every now and again. But then this is always going to be hard to get a grip on if, like Thomas, your research takes you back no further than 1988's January edition of Cosmopolitan.

Accordingly, the book turns into a string of petty grievances. Trash your woman's flat, Thomas says, and you'll get arrested. Wreck your man's clothing and tip paint on his car and you'll be praised for your ingenuity as an avenger. (And then you'll get arrested: the law is not the ass Thomas claims.) But is life long enough to be bothered about this? The chapter on 'battered husbands' comes over as no less marginal an interest. Thomas reports 'attacks with bricks, knives and scissors' and suggests that men should take cover: 'it is vital for male victims to have somewhere to go where they can discuss their problems in a safe setting.' But even if the statistical evidence of husband-abuse is awry by hundreds, it will still be a fraction of the violence carried out on women by men. Thomas is pleading not guilty, but he's doing so in the small claims court.

Still, Thomas's explorations did uncover to him at one point the means to become, in his own profoundly depressing phrase, 'an emotionally functioning human being'. He was on a specially organised weekend at the time, squatting in the bush with some naked Australians, and suddenly it came to him: 'the discovery that you could chew the fat with other guys, but instead of talking about work or football, you could share some of the worries, hopes, insecurities or emotions which were normally kept bottled up inside.'

Actually, these days one is constantly meeting people, both men and women, prepared to divulge their emotions with unasked-for candour, and thinking 'why didn't you bottle that up?' What we need right now is a bold voice to speak up in praise of repression and inhibition. In short, we need someone with bottle. On the evidence of Not Guilty, we aren't about to find it in David Thomas.