Manhood for Amateurs

Novelist Michael Chabon surveys the emotional terrain of life as a husband, father, and son.

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Michael Chabon brings the most varied and fabulous scenarios alive through his fiction: a Pulitzer-winning opus on love and war and the Golden Age of comics, a weary detective in an alternate history of a Jewish Alaska, a baseball game-turned- magical adventure. In his latest book, it’s a gift to find that his writing is just as radiant, original, and observant when trained on his own life.

Manhood for Amateurs, a collection of personal essays on “the pleasures and regrets of a husband, father, and son,” is put forward as an autobiography, but it’s more of a strobe light illuminating selected epiphanies throughout Chabon’s life. Familiar themes such as Judaism and comic books play their parts; so, less successfully, do daddy-blog staples such as his acceptance of the need for “a murse – a man purse.” While he does chronicle life’s notable melancholies and joys – circumcising a child, welcoming a nephew, absorbing a divorce – for the most part, he highlights the small but incendiary insights most of us recognize only in hindsight.

A reflection on the value of Chabon’s long-ago MFA program, for instance, becomes a look at how it made him grow from boy to man, and then elevated itself into something more: “We are accustomed to repeating the cliché, and to believing, that ‘our most precious resource is our children,’ ” Chabon wrote. “But we have plenty of children to go around, God knows, and as with Doritos, we can always make more. The true scarcity we face is of practicing adults, of people who know how marginal, how fragile, how finite their lives and their stories and their ambitions really are but who find value in this knowledge, even a sense of strange comfort, because they know their condition is universal, is shared.

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“You bring your little story to the workshop, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t; and then you’re gone, and it’s time for somebody else to have the floor.”
Most of the essays take that path, a surface introduction giving way to a layered, deeper meaning, sometimes zooming in on a moment, sometimes zooming out like this: “A father is a man who fails every day.” Chabon often wanders at leisure toward his eventual point (“This brings me to the real subject, or object, of these ruminations,” he writes on the eighth page of one nine-page piece), but those final points come to seem as illuminating and inevitable as a flame rising from a struck match.

At the book’s best, Chabon spotlights moments so perceptively it seems no one has appreciated them before, as when he writes of his deep affection for his former father-in-law, and how he and his then-wife “broke all those promises that we thought we had made only to each other.”

And any parent or child, brother or sister, might choke up to read how Chabon’s newborn brother came home from the hospital: “I shuffled half unwilling down the grassy knoll to the parking lot to get my first long look at him.... [I]t was not until that morning, in early September 1968, that my story truly began. Until my brother was born, I had no one to tell it to.”

At some points the essays do collapse under their hardcover weight, seeming more suited for the periodicals where most first appeared than for a permanent bookshelf. Rants on the dumbing down of LEGOS or explanations for pooh-poohing Captain Underpants, for instance, are entertaining, but ephemeral.

Some of that unevenness comes almost as a relief. A nonstop lineup of scalding emotion, even in Chabon’s observant tones, would be hard to sustain. But then, we read how his daughter “tossed and shone like a torch as we carried her around the room” at her bat mitzvah, and how he realizes “the lives of a child and a parent are not a pair of counterweights, dragging the hands of a clock around its sorry dial.” Instead, he realizes, “There is only one time, and one life, and we all share them, and if there is a torch, then it is far too cumbersome and heavy to be passed.”

Every such gem leaves us wanting more of the sacred and less of the mundane.

Rebekah Denn writes at eatallaboutit.com.

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