Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son
In Berkeley, California, there is a house of stained wood shingles beneath a tall shady tree. The yard is full of flowers and there are still two Obama signs between the bushes. Novelist Michael Chabon lives here with his four children and his wife, the writer Ayelet Waldman. This house, with its Jedi battles and impromptu lessons in the drawing of superheroines, is the setting for manhood for amateurs, Chabon’s second book of nonfiction, that expands upon a long-running column in details. Like the realms of boyhood fantasy his book romps through, the house is a place where, by the end, we desperately want to live, too.
Chabon has made his name in the last decade as a champion of the richness of genre literature—detective, fantasy, and comic. In The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, he set out to restore the literary stature that the works of H.G. Wells and J.R.R. Tolkien enjoyed, but that their descendants do not—at least until Kavalier & Clay won 2001’s Pulitzer.
Why then, is Chabon’s latest book about, of all things, the quotidian highs and lows of fatherhood, husbandom, son-ness? Why that awful title? Chabon has not cashed in his artistic integrity for the quick money schemes of today’s memoirified bloggings (think the pre-film Julie & Julia, No Impact Man, etc). There are still the short chapters, the long sentences tense with clauses, a Faulknerian fearlessness with vocabulary. His thoughts spring from phrase to phrase within sentences, pirouette between paragraphs, soar. No, manhood is run through with swathes of cultural, political, and artistic history that make the Chabon-Waldman family’s story more than just the sum of its grocery lists. In the space of a six-page chapter, for example, he dances gracefully from the worth of writing workshops to Henry Miller to overcoming misogyny as a gateway to manhood. On the Scandinavian toys: “Like Le Corbusier’s humancentric Modulor scale or Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man, the [Lego men] as they proliferated became the measure of all things.” The requisite chapter on Being Honest with Your Kids darts and dodges through the drug use implied in the oeuvre of Beatles lyrics, in which his not yet pre-teen children are conversant.
In fact, the chapter that opens by discussing fatherhood is actually a rant on the unfair expectations made of mothers, his wife Ayelet included. In a grocery store, dirt-encrusted baby in one hand, credit card in another, Chabon is told by a woman in rainbow stockings, “You are such a good dad. I can tell.” This launches Chabon from contemporary gender roles to his father’s laissez-faire parenting (dropping in periodically with some new project or other), to 1970s children’s musicals and the expectations of boys and girls conveyed therein, before circling to the back-breaking labors of being a mother of four. In this we see the Chabon of 1987’s The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, who fell so deeply for one of his male buddies that they end up in bed together. No, Chabon is not gay (not that he’d be the first among writers). In fact he said in a 2005 interview that sexual categorizing—like literary genrefying—can be “a harmful and destructive thing.”
So what, therefore, is manhood for us amateurs? Chabon writes that the aim is to bluff, “to flood everyone around you in a great radiant arc of bullshit, one whose source and object of greatest intensity is yourself”—in other words, to perform your manhood. His refreshing abstention from the engine-tuning, golfing, fish tale–telling specters that we’re accustomed to comes from his own place somewhere between the stereotypes.
Despite these jet-powered spirals, the chapters don’t hang loosely like a collection of essays. A champion novelist, Chabon plants a seed in the beginning and uses an image or a word to tend it several times before letting it bloom a hundred pages later. At first, this gives the teased reader the impression that the bud will open just as Chabon is covering it over with a bell jar, the full flower saved for later. Another such tour de force opens the book. Chabon tells a story of himself as a loner, opening a one-boy comics fan club, in a fluorescent-and-linoleum event space in a strip mall. “By pretending to have friends,” he writes, “maybe I could invent some.” We are of course drawn to the figure of the literary loner. But as always, Chabon is never just writing the story in straight realism, or letting a well-known cliché
get by unembroidered. Instead, he imbues the loner with the imagery of pulp history and simultaneously carries out a treatise on art. The very next lines are, stunningly,
Every work of art is one half of a secret handshake... Every great record or novel or comic book convenes the first meeting of a fan club whose membership stands forever at one but which maintains chapters in every city—in every cranium—in the world.
This is the point, only three pages in, where the reader gleefully locks hands with the invisible one begging from between the lines.
Any good writer will show us a world he’s imagined. A great writer, though, will pull us into his world without mercy. In manhood for amateurs, Michael Chabon not only opens a window into his family life, he opens the door, four light-sabered children run out, and we are carried off head over heels into the quirky, literary tree house they inhabit.
Fan club applications can be sent to campus box 5555, c/o
Nicholas Greene B’10.