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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Chabon no ‘amateur’

Published: January 29, 2010
Section: Arts, Etc.

As someone who is neither a husband nor a father (I hope), it may seem puzzling that I would choose to read Michael Chabon’s “Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures of a Husband, Father, and Son,” a collection of 39 essays that, as the title implies, focuses primarily on marriage and children. I’m simply not in that demographic yet.

Well, there is at least one great reason for picking up this book, and his name is Michael Chabon. Best known for acclaimed novels like “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” and “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union,” he is, to put it simply, a great writer, perhaps one of the best prose stylists writing today. What sealed the deal for me personally, though, was the moment in which I first cracked open the book and came across a lovely passage that declared, “we have plenty of children to go around… and as with Doritos, we can always make more.”

It was love at first glance.

In complete seriousness, though, Chabon manages to submerse you in his writing, aided in part by the way he delicately balances the serious along with the comedic. On one hand, he speaks at length about the nature of the male purse, also known as the “murse.” The “murse” is a difficult beast, as it must afford plenty of room for various items without veering too much into traditional purse territory. A few essays before he launches into this analysis of the murse, however, he discusses at length the great remorse he felt for letting down his former father-in-law, a stoic but kind man with whom he formed a strong father-son bond until his first marriage crumbled.

Chabon writes in such a way that you come to feel like you know him personally or, at the very least, have been allowed into his confidence. Instead of reading like a series of unrelated essays, they come together to form a kind of unique, focused memoir, illuminating all the disparate elements of his life bit by bit—from his childhood to his raising of four children of his own. But, unlike your typical memoir, he doesn’t succumb to the urge to engage in self-aggrandizement, choosing to be painfully honest about many aspects of his life even when it isn’t completely flattering. Additionally, the essay format allows him to move from one interesting, transformative anecdote to another, cutting the fat that can plague genuine autobiographical writing.

The topic he perhaps approaches most vividly is childhood—the simple acts of exploration, the inventiveness of Lego architecture, the bonds built around comic books and obscure television shows. Perhaps what’s most striking, however, is the way in which he applies his own notions of childhood to the reality of his children’s childhood, which he views comparatively with great disappointment. Certainly this feeling stems in part from nostalgia; most of us, after all, believe our childhood to be better than it was. He does make some compelling, concrete points for his argument, however. There’s the familiar one that stresses the way in which children are no longer allowed to roam their neighborhoods freely, lest a child abductor gets his hands on one of them. More interestingly, however, he argues that childhood has been commercialized, with books like “Captain Underpants” marketing the kind of potty humor that was once the exclusive domain of children.

Perhaps one of the most striking things about the book as a whole is that Chabon doesn’t try to put fatherhood on a pedestal. He doesn’t think himself special for being a father—in fact, he bemoans an incident in which a stranger declares him to be a “good father” simply for taking his children to the supermarket with him. He feels that the bar for being a good father has been set too low by society, which has much higher standards for mothers.

This view springs partly from Chabon’s own observation of his parents. His father was kind of the classic American dad—supportive in some respects but ultimately emotionally aloof. He praises his mother, meanwhile, for her ability to raise her family largely on her own, and he credits her for making him into the man he is today.

To Chabon, manhood is something that he’s still trying to grow into. Even as he’s approaching his late forties, he still feels like he’s posturing when he does anything involving power tools. He still doesn’t feel comfortable in his masculinity around others—take the “murse” episode, for instance. But, though Chabon may think himself an amateur when it comes to fulfilling what society dictates to be the traditional characteristics of masculinity, he is certainly no amateur when it comes to writing beautifully.