Adventures in American Literature #1: Manhood for Amateurs

Michael Chabon (b. 1963) – Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasure and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son (2009)

I came upon this essay collection while walking through Books of Wonder, a downtown Manhattan bookstore that I had not visited since I was a preteen. The cover’s bold lettering of the author’s name, Michael Chabon, immediately brought back memories of my final year of high school, when in my spring semester I took a wonderful class on Literature of the 80s and 90s and we read Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000). I recall Kavalier & Clay being a brilliant experience, one which unfortunately could not be duplicated with Chabon’s non-fiction.

I enjoyed reading Manhood for Amateurs, but only a few of the essays were truly great. Out of 39 essays, the best of the lot are (in order of when they appear in the book): “The Losers’ Club,” “William and I,” “D.A.R.E.,” “The Wilderness of Childhood,” “Hypocritical Theory,” “The Splendors of Crap,” “The Story of Our Story,” “The Amateur Family” and “Daughter of the Commandment.” The other thirty essays besides those nine are still worth reading, but they do not possess the same indescribable magic or wonder. After a while you learn to recognize the signs of how Chabon often wraps up his essays, generally with what sounds like a moral or a school essay conclusion saying “so anyway, this is the point and this is what I learned, sometimes in spite of myself.” To me, the best essays are the ones that end unexpectedly or in a way that feels fresh and new.

In 2005, Chabon’s wife, the writer Ayelet Waldman, wrote a controversial New York Times column in which she declared that she loved her husband more than she loved her children. I couldn’t help wondering if Chabon had his wife’s writings in mind while creating his own essays. There were moments in Chabon’s essays about his children when I felt he was far removed from my own understanding of family life. He writes of the qualities of good fatherhood as being there for making dinner for your kids, bringing them to dental appointments and answering their questions about the mysteries of the world even if you don’t really know the answers. It sounds as though he always holds his children at a distance, amused by his observations of their habits but never actually understanding them. I guess it’s typical for a parent not to understand some aspects of their children, but occasionally in Chabon’s writing his father-son and (especially) father-daughter relationships hew closer to disinterest than they should.

Somewhere on my bookshelf I think I have a copy of Chabon’s first children’s book, The Astonishing Secret of Awesome Man. Perhaps it can revive more of my appreciation of him, not only as a fine craftsman of prose – which he is – but also as the unabashed geek that he is proud to be. After all, anyone who writes an essay (“The Amateur Family”) about how he and his children consider “Doctor Who” the “greatest show ever in the history of television” can’t be all bad.

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