Michael Chabon is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist. He’s been on my radar for years, but I only recently sought out his work after running across a GQ article he wrote about attending Paris Fashion Week with his 13-year-old son. Because his account of the trip—a bar mitzvah present for his fashion-loving son, Abe—was so loving and insightful, I gravitated immediately to Chabon’s collection of personal essays, Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father and Son, rather than his fiction.
In Manhood for Amateurs, as the subtitle suggests, Chabon writes about the relationships he’s experienced and the roles he’s played as a boy and a man—son, brother, husband, son-in-law, father. The essays that resonate most with me are those in which he contemplates fatherhood, a role he clearly cherishes. I think I find them so touching because they echo back to me experiences and feelings I’ve had as a parent.
In “William and I” he laments how little it takes to be considered a good father today (still apparently not much more than taking your 20-month-old grocery shopping with you), compared to what it takes to be considered a good mother (“[p]erhaps performing an emergency tracheotomy with a bic pen on her eldest child while simultaneously nursing her infant and buying two weeks’ worth of healthy but appealing break-time snacks for the entire cast of Lion King, Jr.”). He clearly expects more from himself and expresses reverence at the intimacy you develop with your children as a result of the mundane, day-to-day tedium of raising them, especially through “your contact with their bodies, with their shit and piss, sweat and vomit, . . . with their hair against your lips as you kiss the tops of their heads, with the bones of their shoulders and with the horror of their breath in the morning as they pursue the ancient art of forgetting to brush.”
I think what I appreciate most about Chabon’s essays is their honesty, which is both humorous and poignant. In “The Memory Hole,” Chabon begins with an admission that he and his wife regularly throw away a large percentage of the flood of artwork his four children bring home from school. I can’t tell you what a relief it is to hear another parent admit to this. However, what begins as a self-deprecating account of how they try to manage the influx (“We don’t toss all of it. We keep the good stuff—or what strikes us, in the Zen of that instant between scraping out the lunch box and sorting the mail, as good.”), skillfully transitions into a meditation on how quickly childhood passes, how many moments we squander, and how few clear memories we carry forward with us into the future.
In “The Losers’ Club,” the introductory essay in Manhood, Chabon writes about his failed attempt, as a lonely boy in suburban Maryland, to convene a fellowship of likeminded individuals by founding the Columbia Comic Book Club. (No one attends the inaugural meeting, which results in it also being the final meeting.) It feels like a vindication, therefore, when in “The Amateur Family,” one of the last essays in the book, he describes himself as “the geek matrix of four bright geek spawn.” While this essay revolves around the family’s collective love of the Doctor Who television show, what it really celebrates is the fellowship Chabon shares with his children, and that they share with each other: “In the hands, minds, and geekish chatter of my children, I have found again that long-lost, long-desired connection. Each of us stands ready, at any moment, to talk Who, to riff and spin and sketch out new contours for the world we collectively inhabit, creating and endlessly re-creating the fandom that is our family.”
What I love most about “The Amateur Family” is Chabon’s understanding of the innate human drive to connect with others in “a shared universe of enthusiasm”; the fact that he ultimately finds this connection within his own family just makes the account that much more wonderful. Not surprisingly, his respect for and recognition of this impulse also featured prominently in the GQ article on taking his son to Fashion Week—which is what turned me on to this book of essays in the first place. In the GQ article, it’s Chabon’s appreciation of his son’s need to connect with people who share his love of fashion, an interest that Chabon doesn’t share, that I found so moving. He obviously respected his son’s obsession before the trip, or he wouldn’t have taken him on it; but by the end of the trip he gets it—and his son—in a whole new way.
If you like reading meditations on parenthood, I’d definitely recommend this collection of essays. And if you don’t have time to read whole book, at least check out the GQ article!
Chabon, Michael. Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son. New York: HarperCollins, 2009.