For those of us who looked forward to and were somewhat disappointed with The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Michael Chabon’s follow up to his Pulitzer Prize winner, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, his latest book, Manhood for Amateurs, is more like it. Manhood for Amateurs is a collection of personal essays investigating what it means to be a man, a husband and a father raising a family at the start of the twenty first century. Taken together the essays form a kind of autobiographical memoir explaining how Chabon became the man he feels he has become and, perhaps more importantly, how he can become the man he would like to be. He is a product of a world that in some sense no longer exists, and while much that has changed has changed for the best, there has been change to regret. Manhood for Amateurs looks to reclaim some of the best of those past values, to see if there is not still a place for them in this changed world.
He writes about his childhood, about the freedom he had to roam the “wilderness” behind his home in Maryland, about his fascination with comic books and super heroes, about playing Planet of the Apes at the Megginsons’ disorderly house. It was a freedom which encouraged exploration and creativity; it was a freedom to use his imagination. One has to wonder if it is not just this kind of freedom that is the essential element in the creation of writer.
On the other hand, he talks about his parents’ divorce, his mother’s boyfriends, his father’s move to Pittsburgh. He admits of a fetish for collecting father figures. He writes about his early sexual experiences and his own marriages and divorce. He describes his dalliance with pot. He talks about his own children and his role as a parent.
Every so often he gets into more public kinds of topics: his short acquaintance with David Foster Wallace at a John Kerry rally, his feelings about Jose Conseco after the revelations about steroids, his feelings about self-centered artists like Henry Miller. He considers the changing roles of men in the rearing of children. He comments on the value of creative writing programs. He talks about religion and having his children take part in a Nativity play; he describes his daughter’s bat mitzvah.
But most importantly, whatever he writes about, he writes about with wit and style. He is fond of using the ordinary occurrence, the everyday situation as a metaphor. In the essay “Subterranean,” he uses the terrified excitement he feels in his grandfather’s basement as a metaphor for his life as a writer. Rummaging and snooping in that basement helped form, he says, the basis for his “life as a writer,” made him “a denizen of the basement of my soul.” A child’s inability to draw a picture of a woman becomes a figure for the writer’s inability to create realistic female characters. An old fashioned set of Lego building blocks is a signifier of creativity, while the proscriptive model kits that fill the shelves of Toys ‘R Us today are creative dead ends.
He is fond of the aphoristic statement: “The meaning of divorce will elude us as long as we are blind to the meaning of marriage. . . .” “A wallet is a man’s totem, his distillation. It pockets his soul as surely as he pockets it.” Occasionally, he indulges himself in the outrageous conceit: a man’s purse “is basically a vagina with a strap.” He is inventive in his use of language: his mother was never a “Santa Clause of physical affection.” She dates a “zoo’s worth” of men after her divorce. There is a “cyclopean television” in his father-in-law’s den. A staircase is described as lengthening “Alice-in-Wonderlandishly.” He scavenges through high culture and even more so popular culture for the clarifying allusion. One is as apt to find reference to Larry Talbot, Jeff Beck, the Huxtables, as to Shakespeare.
Chabon has created a distinctive voice, a contemporary voice for a contemporary world. Not only does he speak in a modern idiom, he speaks with all of the baggage that comes with that voice. He talks about the male need to fake confidence, as he drives his family through a blizzard, to seem always in control. He over indulges in the minutia of pop culture, glorifying a kind of nerdiness. He acknowledges his inertia in the art of living. He is often self-deprecating. Still, none of this stops him from speaking. Here is the contradiction inherent in the contemporary voice: while acknowledging its own inadequacies, it is not willing to be reticent. In this way, Chabon speaks for many of us.