In popular culture, when men talk about being men they follow a certain formula. We’re probably going to hear about the protagonist looking deeply into the eyes of his firstborn child, his wild single days and the emotional rigors of being a husband. There’s almost a sense that men live the same life; just the names of the primary characters change.
Novelist Michael Chabon’s book of essays, Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son, fits into that paradigm, but not perfectly. Thank goodness. Chabon focuses on the almost-overlooked moments of his life, and the result is a sparkling, clear-headed collection that provides a glorious look at the makeup of a man.
The Pulitzer Prize winner (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay; Wonder Boys) waxes poetic about the creative benefits of the crappy TV shows and movies of his youth, compared to the polished, CGI-animated treats of today, which “don’t leave anything implied, unstated, incomplete.” He talks about the growing sense of doom accompanying his daughter’s blossoming into womanhood and how getting a men’s purse, or “murse,” represents one of the key benefits of getting older—not caring what other people think. Chabon also installs a towel rack, worries about his wife and examines other wonders of childhood: getting lost, the seductive power of basements and the shattered world of scatological humor.
As has been observed repeatedly, Chabon is an awesome talent. He’s blessed with observational shrewdness and a gift for nimble wordplay, but that never obscures the points he makes. (That last talent has served him well as a novelist, and it’s especially helpful here.) The essays, most of which previously appeared in Details, are nostalgic, funny and introspective while never straining for style points or wallowing in sentiment. It’s the kind of writing you read twice, not to get a better understanding, but to better appreciate the man’s abilities. Chabon is a regular guy—except that he can expertly explain himself with smooth, embracing eloquence. The rest of us have to stick to the same old story.
Pete Croatto is a New Jersey-based freelance writer.