MANHOOD FOR AMATEURS by Michael Chabon

Book Quote:

“I looked up at her, grinning and beautiful and terrified and happy, and felt not the same old “time is fleeting and we are all mortal” but something finer and simpler and harder even to bear in mind. This is our life happening, I told her, or would have told her if I could have caught my breath long enough to say it over the clamor of the clarinet and fiddle, and it’s happening right now.”

Book Review:

Review by Doug Bruns (DEC 20, 2009)

What is it about the domestic American Male? As a species, he is not rare. To the contrary, he is among the most common of beasts. He is not beautiful, does not have fantastic colors or habits. He is, in fact, anti-exotic. There is nothing about him that is of particular interest, which is to say he is flatly pedestrian. I should know, I am one. Yet, along comes another one, a domestic American Male, and writes a book about it, about whatever “it” is. Someone deems it worthy of publishing and others support that decision by buying the book and reading it. And even, like here, a few choose to write about it. It’s sort of like Rembrandt and later, Rockwell, looking in a mirror as they paint themselves. And me taking a picture of it all, and then all of us looking at it. Really, is it all that interesting? Yes, it is.

Manhood for Amateurs, is a rich study, worthy of the complex and illusive creature it tracks. The domestic American Male is interesting and multifaceted, and somehow that is not contradictory, being ordinary and yet worthy. But he is twisted up as well. Literature is full of examples. And we’ve observed this attribute in film too. One such cinematic species individual, so worked-up over his father-son, husband-wife, man-world relationship deems that he can solve all these nagging mysteries by building a baseball field in the middle of a corn pasture and somehow he will figure out at least part of it all. That is how complex this whole thing is. Some write books, some build fields. Whatever. Just do it. And they will come. And Freud wondered what women want! Rich stuff, indeed.

Montaigne said he studied himself more than any other subject. Chabon has branched out some, but the trunk, the core to it all, is, like Montaigne, himself. His subject matter, that is, himself and all that entails, is the canvas upon which he paints. In thirty-nine essays, Chabon touches on subjects and their ramifications as far reaching as crumpled soggy bath towels, super heroes, novel writing, astronomy, Bisquick, Tarzan, suicide, old family photographs, religion, loss of virginity, rock and roll, drugs, friendship and loss, to name a few. That said, there are only a handful of real themes in this book, chiefly stemming from his marriage and his children. For instance, In an essay entitled “A Textbook Father” he reflects on his daughter’s coming of age, which leads him to self-reflection:

“Sooner or later, you will discover which kind of father you are, and at that moment you will, with perfect horror, recognize the type. You are the kind of father who fakes it, who yells, who measures his children with greatest accuracy only against one another, who evades the uncomfortable and glosses over the painful and pads the historic records of his sorrows and accomplishments alike….You are the kind of father who pretends knowledge he doesn’t possess, and imposes information with implacable gratuitousness, and teaches lessons at the moment when none can be absorbed, and is right, and has always been right, and always will be right until the end of time, and never more than immediately after he has been wrong.”

He concludes: “…you’re a walking cliche.”

I love the personal essay. However, a book of personal essays too often reads thin and brittle, as if there is too little mortar between the swaying bricks. I think this is frequently the result of a collection of diverse pieces originally published independently but then reborn as a book. Though most of these pieces, indeed, came to life in magazines they never feel foreign or contrived as a book. Instead, they read as chapters, connected and precisely interwoven. Perhaps due to the novelist-of-high-order in him, Chabon’s essays feel more like chapters in a larger work.

There is wonderful humor here, often delivered is quick unexpected punches. Worked up and worried about his daughter’s anticipated first period, he wonders aloud to his wife why “these things” (that would be children) don’t come with instruction books. “Oh my God,” he shouts to his wife hysterically, “what if you die the day before she gets her period?” Or, when he approaches a woman, mistaking her for someone else. She offers him a ride home, nevertheless: “She had a big nose and strong legs and eyes that were an unusual shade of green…I remember thinking, as I stood there weighing her offer, This is going to be a mistake….Eighteen months later I married her on the back lawn of her parent’s house in Seattle.”

There is also a serious vein being mined here. It comes close to the surface when he discusses his mother, a woman he obviously adores, who divorced his father when he was 12 and went on to get a law degree. Too, he writes movingly of, his wife who suffers from bi-polar disorder. Once, he relates, while traveling on a book tour away from home, he could not reach his wife. He logged on and read her blog and grew immediately alarmed at what he read. Still, she could not be reached. “When I returned the next day from my trip, I learned to my horror that my wife had come very near to swallowing a bottle of pills the night before.” Contemplating the import of the incident, and reflecting on the then-recent suicide of peer writer, David Foster Wallace, Chabon continues, “When the vision fades and the colored smoke disperses, we are left alone and marooned again in our skulls with nothing but our longing for connection. That longing drives writers and readers to seek the high, small window leading out, to lower the makeshift ropes of knotted bed sheet that stories and literature afford, and make a break for it.” Dark stuff, but like everything else rendered here, the high and the low, it is written with so much compassion and love and insight that it makes the reader wish Chabon were a friend–because I think, from what is provided here, he must make for a very good friend–and, most importantly to his theme, a very good father, husband, son and brother.

Here, the domestic American Male is redeemed. We find solace in a man who is challenged, but still intent on being good and true. We delight in a man who likes to go to the movies with his children, his “band of companions;” who wants to be a good father (“The handy thing about being a father is that the historic standard is so pitifully low.”). A man who so obviously loves his wife. (“There’s nothing I work harder at than being a good father, unless it’s being a good husband…”) In an age when men are frequently portrayed (rightfully, I wonder?) as self-absorbed couch potatoes, and skirt-chasing beer-guzzling dullards, Michael Chabon’s well-composed reflections are a refreshingly intelligent and hopeful sign.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 48 readers
PUBLISHER: Harper; First Edition edition (October 6, 2009)
REVIEWER: Doug Bruns
AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK? Not Yet
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Michael Chabon
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:

Bibliography:

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December 20, 2009 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: Family Matters, Non-fiction, y Award Winning Author

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