Thursday, April 12, 2012

Review: Manhood for Amateurs, by Michael Chabon

Manhood for Amateurs is a collection of essays on fatherhood and masculinity from Michael Chabon. I'd come across it originally when August (he among the quiet friends) had quoted some select bits, and years later, I had the presence of mind to snatch it up from the bargain bin when I saw it there. It wasn't, as things turned out, the ideal time for me to read this book, although it's not because it failed speak to me easily. It did. It was great in its way. In fact, Chabon's humor is familiar, his self-effacement is similarly backhanded, and his values, while not quite identical, readily map to mine. I've gone so far as to write, not only on the same themes, but on some of the very same subjects as he does in this collection (Legos, for just one instance). Nope, my mild peckishness comes from a couple places: (1) Chabon's a zillion times a better writer than I am, and it's not a whole lot of fun reading a worlds-better version of your own schtick, which, I'll add, in Mike's case has also got him gainfully employed and all kinds of attention; and (2) I've been turning the corner a bit too often lately from ironic bemusement into a fairly devastating self-analysis.

I'll dwell on the second point a bit longer. Chabon often finds himself comically awkward and ineffectual, but let's not pretend he's not also charmed by this, that he doesn't likewise expect others to find it charming. He's managed to forgive his own faults, for the most part, or at least make peace with them, and he is generally a whole lot more sensitive to his younger self than I've been lately to mine. In one essay, he describes the failure of his first marriage, in the context of discovering the not-very-deep limits to his misery. Even his bitterness, as he tells it, comes with a certain ironic detachment. In one of the opening bits, he goes on about the low expectations and over-praising that fathers who pay minimal attention to their children tend to receive, and okay, it's a good bit, and true. It goes on to suck up, however, just a little bit, to the women who deal with these things as stoically as society expects them to, and while that doesn't seem so out of place in that essay, by that point, somewhere in there, I'm noticing that his family is successful and wealthy, his (current) marriage preternaturally respectful and sustaining, that he lives in an absurdly supportive liberal community (Berkeley CA), and the burdens placed historically on women aren't much shared by any of the group. Somewhere in there, and throughout the book, is the acceptance of male and female roles as they currently are. It's an unsettled and questioning acceptance to be sure, and it's happy how far they've evolved from his parents' day, but there you are.

Or maybe I can define this by contrast, citing an essay that really worked for me. A later one reveals his younger self as enamored with the role of a Henry James style affable cad, and how, while working with capable women, he was forced to identify and outgrow, with some chagrin, that brand of misogynistic little-shitness. We men often start out with all kinds of affirmation of that little-shit behavior, he observes, and indeed it's a bizarre sort of tragedy that learning how completely unwarranted it is, remains an optional exercise. That thought seemed to come from a more sincere place than remembering everything that dear old Mom went through. Or again, maybe it's just a reflection of where I'm at these days.

I wasn't in a mood to read a cautious celebration of nuclear fatherhood either (I don't feel like a failure at it, but I'm royally sick of the all the sitcom conventions that pervade our conceptions of the job) but lots of these thoughts got right to me. One of his early essays managed to win me by the second sentence: "Almost every day, at least one of my four children comes home with art... And almost every bit of it ends up in the trash." It seems to me that faking our way through fatherhood, uncomfortable with our own authority, is a nobler and more selfless struggle than trying to figure out girls, and I'm glad that Chabon is uncomfortable with the romance of it too. Here, his slightly childlike enjoyment of relationships and culture shines more brightly, and fits into place more snugly. With kids, a mild and jokey push against authority is just the level you want. (And I did think a lot of my own father while reading these sections).

And Chabon is funny in a comfortably self-mocking way. That goes on here in spades. He's got a sense of the bittersweet that I can't help but share. Thematically, it offers a powerful message that we always muddle by in an odd juxtaposition of youth and age, men and women, past and present, expectations and reality, memory and hope. It's never a wholly bad exercise to get yourself caught up in the heartbreaking beauty of now.

1 comment:

Schmutzie said...

Thanks K. I've been thinking about picking this up, and I think I will. Obviously in a slightly different place than you are (no kids, no wife, an extra decade of mileage) so no frame of reference vis a vis being a father or the nuclear family. Hopefully he does an essay on re-tiling and re-plumbing his bathroom. Shit doesn't get much more manhoody than that.