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Book Review: Manhood for Amateurs, by Michael Chabon

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Drat Michael Chabon. The very name of the Pulitzer-prize winning author unleashes my literary insecurities. Chabon came to the fore of contemporary literature during the years when I was attempting to jam the steps of the Krebs cycle into the scattered corners of my liberal-arts brain. After eight years of wrestling my neurons into scientific submission, I spent roughly a decade unwilling to open the pages of any book that might require thought. Having finally surfeited myself with mysteries, fantasy, glossy thrillers, and (I’m sorry to say) chick-lit, I began to once again dip into the pool of serious literature. One day my husband brought home an intricately covered paperback from Costco. “This looked sort of interesting. It had a weird premise; I thought it might be something you’d like.”

I flipped to the back cover of Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, read the first few lines and uttered the fatal words, “Yeah, I’ve heard of him. I really should read this.” “Should.” That word poisons ambition and strangles interest. In the middle of a juicy mystery novel, I put the book aside. I picked it up several times over the next few months. First it wouldn’t fit in my purse. Then, I developed a migraine about three pages into the novel during a car ride, and it rode forlorn on the center console for several weeks until my long-suffering husband returned it to the house. My last honest attempt to read The Yiddish Policeman’s Union came nearly two years ago. Taking it on the train to a four day seminar in San Francisco seemed perfect. Sadly, my mood that week was distracted and incompatible with gritty crime or alternate histories. I think the bookmark is still somewhere around page 59. By the time I attended a writers workshop last fall, I had developed a nervous twitch whenever the words Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay or Maps and Legends were mentioned. I could have made a drinking game out of it.

A couple of months later, I turned on the radio to catch the middle of an NPR interview with an author discussing his new memoir. This guy was hilarious, full of lively anecdotes and a great, wry humor. At the break, I heard, “we’re talking with Michael Chabon about his new memoir Manhood for Amateurs.” Twitch. I went so far as to pick up the hardcover in the bookstore and flip through the pages. Twitch. Manhood for Amateurs went back on the shelf. During an interview with author Diana Joseph, she referenced one of Chabon’s essays in Manhood for Amateurs, “have you read it?” “No…not yet.” Mumble. “You really should. It’s great.” Mumble.

Enough was enough; with the release of Manhood for Amateurs in paperback, it was time to exorcise the specter of Mr. Chabon from my conscience.

Every work of art is one half of a secret handshake, a challenge that seeks the password, a heliograph flashed from a tower window, an act of hopeless optimism in the service of bottomless longing…Art, like fandom, asserts the possibility of fellowship in a world built entirely from the materials of solitude. The novelist, the cartoonist, the songwriter, knows that the gesture is doomed from the beginning but makes it anyway, flashes his or her bit of mirror, not on the chance that the signal will be seen or understood but as if such a chance existed.

The opening essay of Manhood for Amateurs recounts, on the surface, Chabon’s childhood attempt to start a comic book club with a newsletter modeled after Stan Lee’s “Stan’s Soapbox.” Though the pre-adolescent Chabon had carefully typed and copied a newsletter, had signs and cashbox at the ready in the rec room rented for the purpose of the inaugural meeting by his mother, no one came. Or, more accurately, one kid came. “The woman hesitated, then urged her son toward me, figuring or hoping, I suppose, that something could be salvaged, some kind of club business transacted. But the boy pushed back. That multipurpose room was not anywhere he wanted to be. God knows what kind of Araby he had erected, what fabulous tents he had pitched, in his own imagination of the event.”

I was never a comic book reader. Heck, I was never a boy. But, with the brilliance of the true essayist, Chabon turns this anecdote on his wheel, shaping it into a contemplation of the greater burdens of success and failure, life and art, and the knife edge of parenting.

In spite of whatever consolation my mother may have offered, that was the moment when I began to think of myself as a failure. It’s a habit I never lost. Anyone who has ever received a bad review knows how it outlasts, by decades, the memory of a favorable word…

…Though I derive a sense of strength and confidence from writing and from my life as a husband and father, those pursuits are notoriously subject to endless setbacks and the steady exposure of shortcoming, weakness, and insufficiency – in particular the raising of children. A father is a man who fails every day. Sometimes things work out…Success, however, does nothing to diminish the knowledge that failure stalks everything you do. But you always knew that. Nobody gets past the age of ten without that knowledge. Welcome to the club.

I wanted into that club. By shifting to the second person in the last sentences of that first essay, Chabon had neatly brought me to the door of his treehouse. I still wondered if I would be given the password. This was, after all, a book about manhood, penned by a Jewish author known for his genius. I couldn’t help wondering if the spell would last for a female, lapsed-Catholic, rural veterinarian. But Chabon displays an acute awareness of the barriers and rules that keep us out of each others' clubhouses.

“The handy thing about being a father is that the historic standard is so pitifully low.” After being told by a woman in the grocery store, “You are such a good dad,” Chabon ponders the standards set for good fathers vs. good mothers. “I don’t know what a woman needs to do to impel a perfect stranger to inform her in the grocery store that she is a really good mom.” “We do not judge mothers by snapshots but by years of images painstakingly accumulated from the orbiting satellite of memory.”

To judge by his writing, and by that of his wife (Ayelet Waldman, Bad Mother), Chabon is an involved father, one who immerses himself in the daily grind of child rearing. Great. Good for him, and for his family. But what won me over was his open acknowledgment that “I can check out any time I want to and know that my wife will still be there, making those dentist appointments and ensuring that there’s a wrapped, age-appropriate birthday present for next Saturday’s pool party…All I need to do is hold my kid in the checkout line – all I need to do is stick around – and the world will crown me and favor me with smiles.”

Yet, lest Chabon be accused of the sort of guilt-induced, feminist navel-gazing beloved of intellectual liberal men, he is forthright about the motivation behind his shared-parenting approach.

So, all right, it isn’t fair. But the truth is that I don’t want to be a good father out of egalitarian feminist principles. Those principles – though I cherish them – are only the means to an end for me.
The daily work you put into rearing your children is a kind of intimacy, tedious and invisible as mothering itself…Lucky me that I should be permitted the luxury of choosing to find the intimacy inherent in this work that is thrust upon so many women. Lucky me.

In the collection of essays that weave to form Manhood for Amateurs Chabon explores not only parenting but sex, love, marriage, and divorce, notions of masculinity, heroes, heroines, and hero-complexes, the soundtracks of generations, the secularization and concomitant blunting of holidays, time and memory, and the joys of geekdom. This list is not only incomplete, it is woefully inadequate. The lovely intricacy and meaning found in an essay on Legos cannot be captured in a summary or review. To appreciate essays such as “To the Legoland Station,” one must read the work in its entirety, wandering through the Toys ‘R Us of the mind, falling back into the worlds that could be constructed with interlocking colored bricks.

The essays are grouped into sections whose titles cycle through all that is manhood – or all that is humanity. For those prone to skipping the table of contents, these section titles are worth the read; they offer not only a double-edged, provocative wit, but insight into what drives the writer. Part II: “Techniques of Betrayal”, for instance, combines essays focused on the traps of parenting – including the dreaded drug-use talk. The title of the section, and the essays themselves, leave open the question of betrayed and betrayer. Is Chabon discussing the ways in which parents betray our children, or the ways in which – during our fumbling struggles through parenting – we betray ourselves?
While often funny to the point of “what are you laughing about” chuckles, Chabon’s essays remain thoughtful, diving beyond the glib laugh or easy aphorism. Chabon challenges the iconic notions of manhood, never submitting without question to the rules laid out by society. If anything, he seems to take a gentle delight in subverting expectation and assumption.

 

There is nothing brave or courageous or remotely Robinson-esque about my contemplating the carrying of a purse, any more than there is in my taste for pink shirts, though I was once informed by a mother of my acquaintance, half disapprovingly, that wearing a pink shirt was a brave thing for a man to do. It’s simply the case that as I get older, I seem every day to give a little bit less of a fuck what people think of or say about me. This is not the result of my undertaking to exercise a moral program or of increased wisdom or any kind of willed act on my part. It just seems to be a process, a time-directed shedding, like the loss of hair or illusions. I am a husband, a father, and a son, whether or not I think, ponder, or worry about gender, sexuality, my life as a man; and maybe there’s a kind of pleasure to be taken in simple unconsciousness, an automatic way of moving and being and acting in the world.

In “I Feel Good About My Murse,” Chabon takes the trivial question of male purse wearing into a deeper exploration of the arbitrary claims held upon our selves by societal expectations. Why, indeed, do we restrict the handy containment of our most personal property in a handsome bag to the realm of femininity? From whence do we derive these rules that allot points for one’s masculinity, femininity, or worth according to such venal cues as fashion choice? “It holds my essential stuff, including a book – for true contentment, one must carry a book at all times, and great books so rarely fit, my friends, into one’s pocket – but no more, and so I can wear it, and my masculinity, and my contempt for those who might mock or misunderstand me, very lightly indeed.”

Chabon’s writing is blunt, frank, sparing of sentiment, yet never cruel or condescending. He brings his extraordinary intellect to his work, digging through the strata of an idea, but never leaving the reader behind. Even the title of his book carries a layer of meaning beyond the obvious. Although the words “Manhood for Amateurs” possess a superficial connotation of instruction for the inept, Manhood for Amateurs is less of a treatise, and more of a discourse. Anyone with a background in high school French knows that “amateur” derives from the word “lover.” In his essay, “The Amateur Family,” Chabon explores what it means to be an amateur, and why we should all aspire to such a standing. “The closest I have ever come for myself is amateur, in all the original best senses of the word: a lover a devotee; a person driven by passion and obsession to do it – to explore the imaginary world – oneself.”

The standard caveat inherent to most good (translation: honest) memoirs written by those spanning the Baby Boomer and Gen X years applies – those offended by mention of drug use, the vagaries and cruelties of childhood, or casual sex should look elsewhere for reading material. Yet, for those of us who have come of age since the 1970’s, Chabon writes the things we think but fear to speak aloud. He does us the favor of looking into the corners that make us squirm, and doing so with humor, compassion, and companionship.

Now, if you’ll pardon me, I need to go read a book about a cop in a Jewish colony in Alaska. Scratch that, I want to go read that book.

 

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