The pseudo-spinning dial on the cover of Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son by Michael Chabon is exceptionally fitting.* Choose a subheading along the lines of Experience or Sincerity as a starting point and allow Chabon to elaborate in his distinctive elaborate prose! Even for Chabon enthusiasts such as myself not every essay is required reading, and one certainly need not read them in the order presented. There is something here for every reader, man or woman, novice or expert.
I skipped ahead when I read Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands (see review posted on 8/15/08), and I wish I had given the dial a spin with this book. Consider it an amateur error! “A father is a man who fails every day,” Chabon asserts in the lead off essay “The Losers’ Club.” A reasonable premise, if not an encouraging one. I listened to Bruce Springsteen’s greatest hits as I read the first few sections, and the repeated messages of failure and nostalgia had a synergistic downer effect. I knew precisely from whence Chabon came, yet the book was not lighting me up intellectually the way Maps and Legends had.
I was well into the fourth section before I encountered an essay which shook my intellectual moorings. Reading “The Ghost of Irene Adler” on the train I almost exclaimed aloud! Chabon’s depiction of Alexis from Texas is tantalizing and his enumeration of the ways “the Woman” gets on a best friend’s nerves is spot on: “and worst of all, most egregious of all, you cannot believe the way she talks to him. No, worst of all: You can’t believe that he puts up with it.” But what caused me to sit up and re-read the essay was his diagnosis: the death of a friendship over a woman can be attributed to a failure of imagination. In essence that is what a person admits when he says “I don’t know what he sees in her” or “I just don’t get why he’s with her,” but I had not considered it from that salient angle. And I have given it due consideration, particularly with regard to C.S. Lewis, his wife Joy Davidman, and his friendship with J.R.R. Tolkien. Just as Alexis from Texas presented Chabon with an interpretation of his story that had not occurred to him, he then presented me with a novel interpretation of an age-old dilemma. I had no idea that this topic would be addressed in the book, but this is the profound type of insight I expect from the sage Chabon!
I did not expect an essay about carrying a man purse (“I Feel Good About My Murse”), but then one should always leave luxuriant latitude for the unexpected when reading Michael Chabon! I won’t fault him for it, but I think I will stick with my “reading is sexy” canvas messenger bag. Nor do I see myself collecting cookbooks (“Art of Cake”) or throwing my support behind Jose Canseco (“On Canseco”), but I will not deny a man’s right to do so. Chabon is unstinting with his personal experiences, be it admitting his reformed habit of marijuana use to his kids (“D.A.R.E.”), losing his virginity (“Verging”), the dissolution of his first marriage (“The Hand On My Shoulder”), or the outré recommendation that resulted in his being set up with the woman who is his ideal complement, fellow author Ayelet Waldman (“Looking for Trouble”). His contemplation of his contemporary David Foster Wallace committing suicide (“Getting Out”) called to mind the U2 song “Stuck In A Moment You Can’t Get Out Of”, written about the suicide of INXS frontman Michael Hutchence.
There were a couple of essays that left me cold, a fair amount that sailed by with a comfortable recognition, and a precious few that had me grinning from ear-to-ear (“Surefire Lines” to name only one). There are some that I won’t be inclined to re-read, some that I have already re-read and shared with other like-minded individuals, and some that I will wait to revisit until I (and my children along with me) have aged a few more years. As a thirty-two year old husband, father of three, and aspiring author, this is exactly the type of book for which I have been searching. The insights of a forty-six year old husband, father of four, and accomplished author. It is material I can identify with, presented in inimitable style, by an author whom I admire and respect.
I’m not much of a pool player, but I would relish the opportunity to shoot pool with Chabon after one of his readings like Alexis from Texas. Better yet, to associate as parents of kids in the same social sphere. Would our shared “strangely possessive feelings about mythology” (“Sky and Telescope”) be a bond or a barrier? He would pity me “with the especial harsh pity of the geek” for not having an appreciation of Dr. Who (“An Amateur Family”), but considering my firstborn son gave me a t-shirt with the phrase “I’ve got MAD Bat’leth Skills” on it for Christmas I’d say I’m doing my part to raise the next generation of geeks (or amateurs, as Chabon prefers)! I gave myself Manhood for Amateurs for Christmas; is it manly to send yourself a thank you card?
*Cover design by Will Staehle