Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son
By Michael Chabon
HarperCollins, 320 pages, $25.99.
The moment occurs in the life of nearly every important novelist, sooner or later. And in these novelists’ defense, often as not, they cry, “My editor made me do it!” “It” in this case is the collecting of their disjecta membra — essays, speeches, occasional journalism — into a book. Usually such collections arrive in mid-career, undertaken by publishers eager to cash in on the popularity of their A-list writers. Accordingly, they tend to function as a rite of passage of a sort, a way station en route to cultural ratification. David Foster Wallace was a memorable recent case; Jonathan Franzen another.
In “Manhood for Amateurs,” Michael Chabon, long celebrated as a virtuoso stylist with inclinations that run in a rather loose, promiscuous span from the fabulist-realist to the genre-bending postmodernist, brings together much, if not all, of his nonfiction written over the past few years. The subtitle of the book is “The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son.” Well, a reader thinks, if you’re a male author, to which of those categories doesn’t your experience apply? But marketing is marketing, and pegs, ladies and gentlemen, exist not only to hang coats on.
The collection ranges from light little riffs on poignant domestic moments involving one of Chabon’s four kids or his wife — circumcision, the first time one of the children asked him “how to draw a girl” or pondered the nature of cruelty to animals, the fraught advent of puberty in a daughter — to more sustained meditations on stars, space, old girlfriends, marriage, divorce, brothers, Lego building blocks, the nature of loyalty among male friends and several essays that pull to one of his major strengths: the semiotics of pop culture and, in particular, comic books and cartoons.
If the collection has a deeper motif, it’s memory itself, and indeed the book could be read as a manual on the care, maintenance and uses of recollection. Chabon, now in his 40s, is — in this collection, at least — awash in nostalgia. If Paul Klee once described his own artistic credo as that of being “abstract with memories,” then Chabon sees him and raises him one: Anything in this book can serve as a diving board into the pool of the past, whether it’s the excrementally hilarious children’s graphic novel called “Captain Underpants,” or his daughter asking him if he ever smoked pot. All of it is grist for the Chabon memory mill, and it grinds out smoothly finished, musically written essays, one after another.
The short-form personal essay (many of the shorter pieces were originally his monthly columns for Details magazine) requires a tightly articulated structure in order to work well. You can’t really billow and expatiate when your assignment totals out at 1,000 or so words. You have to open sharp, guide the reader through some tightly wound digressions and nail the close. For the most part, in these shorter pieces, Chabon hits the mark wonderfully well. Yes, a certain fatigue sets in around midway through the book — and editors tend to tuck the weaker material out of sight in the less-read center — when a repetitious quality begins to gather over the umpteenth grand conclusion teased out of slender experiential means, and a certain patchy feeling signals things probably hurled into place under the pressure of deadlines. But those reservations aside, he tends to open well and close with a sharp bell chime of tenderness, or insight.
Just as important, and in the great Jewish tragicomic tradition of schlemiel nobility whereby one happily recounts the most awful things about one’s self — not out of a desire to seek penance, but simply because it feels good — Chabon has absolutely no problem with covering himself in merde. Of himself at 20, he writes, “I curated a personal pantheon of shit-heels — of musicians, actors, painters, writers and directors from Charles Mingus to Pablo Picasso to Marlon Brando to Jean-Luc Godard — whose work or biography seemed replete with examples of the kind of giddily anti-social, why-the-f—k-not?, mock-Napoleonic self-involvement and hound-doggishness I thought I admired.”
Not coincidentally, the aforementioned sentence neatly catalogs many of Chabon’s stylistic gifts. Fluent and en pointe as a writer, he pens a many splendored prose filled with long, digressive clauses, zoomy colloquialisms, lyrical curlicues and snappy rhythmical change-ups. In classic Bellovian style, the originality lies in the smoothness with which he blends his dissimilars. The uniqueness of Bellow’s prose lay in his mix of Yiddish cadences, streetwise patois and mock-academic fustian — a combination never before seen on the same page. Chabon’s building blocks are, in this book, a warmly confessional, casual tone allied to exquisite phrasing, arcane cultural references and his cheerful willingness, as already mentioned, to piss all over himself when it serves his purpose.
Of the essays in the book, three of my standout favorites are “To the Legoland Station” (the title is an intentional mangling of a famous book by literary critic Edmund Wilson), “Planet of the Apes” and “Faking It.” The first two deal, in different terms, with a common under-theme of the book: the replacement of the joy of unsupervised play as seen in the childhoods of the 1960s and ’70s in favor of a cheerless, administered uniformity. Chabon begins by explaining that the Lego sets of his childhood, with their basic vocabulary of shapes, “emphatically did not present — and in play with them you never hoped for — the appearance of reality. A Lego construction was not a scale model. It was an idealization, an approximation, your best version of the thing you were trying to make.” These early Lego sets provided open-ended play, as you grappled among the many constituent parts and doodads to make your Frankensteinian creatures and habitats better, only to break them down again and assemble them anew. The Lego sets of today, by contrast, arrive with far more complex bits and pieces and, more important, a detailed instruction manual that presents a specific, unswerving model of how those pieces should be assembled. Following the instructions to the letter, Chabon built a Naboo starfighter with his young son, and “the resulting object was so undeniably handsome, and our investment of time in building it so immense, that the thought of playing with it, let alone ever disassembling it, was anathema.” Chabon “resented the authoritarian nature of the new Lego,” which he finds indicative of a larger cultural shift toward “a structure of control and implied obedience to the norms of the instruction manual.”
In the very next essay in the book, called “The Wilderness of Childhood,” he expands movingly on the subject, pointing out how the freedoms given him in his own childhood, when he was allowed to prowl the neighborhood without concern from his parents, have given way to the dank joys of commodification:
The sandlots and creek beds, the alleys and woodlands have been abandoned in favor of a system of reservations — Chuck E. Cheese, the Jungle, the Discovery Zone: jolly interment centers mapped and planned by adults with no blank spots aside from doors marked Staff Only.
The loss of innocence is a perennial theme of fiction. It’s to Chabon’s credit that in this essay and others in the book, he extends the charge to society as a whole, and by grounding his cultural criticisms always in the personal and anecdotal, he adroitly manages to be diagnostic and warmhearted at the same time.
Humorous, indignant, witty and caustic, and nearly always formally — which is to say artistically — interesting, “Manhood for Amateurs” ranks as a permanent contribution to the canon of important American collections of personal essays. The book glows in the hand.
Eli Gottlieb’s latest novel, “Now You See Him” (William Morrow, 2008), has recently been published in paperback by Harper Perennial.