Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son,
essays by Michael Chabon
The trope of fatherly wisdom, borne of experience and dispensed with measured calm, is a wonderful thing, but how realistic it? There are memoirs about fathers such as Alysia Abbott’s Fairyland and Will Boast’s Epilogue, in which fathers run the spectrum, from brave to flawed and back again.
Rarer is the memoir that reflects on what being a good father is actually like, and for that matter, how men come to be fathers after being sons and boyfriends and husbands. Chabon’s collection is not a memoir exactly, but a series of essays grouped thematically around personal and cultural ideas and behaviors connected to fatherhood. Along with that, there’s a nostalgia for childhood and youth as it was in sixties and seventies, which allows the author to look at the flaws of his own history that have proved influential on fatherin his children (Chabon, with wife Ayelet Waldman, have four altogether). Beside these essays on his own boyhood, some address boyfriend-hood, and these too can speak directly to that same self, to the complex mix of parenting and maleness. Lest we forget, the parents we become are not simply a factor of our parents, but formed by a range of social experience that forms identities of the self.
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“Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” The book’s epigraph by G.K. Chesterton forefronts the deprecating stance, but Chabon has more to tell us. At the supermarket, he is complemented by a stranger simply for taking care of his kid, a double standard he quickly points out (to the reader, anyway), “The handy thing about being a father is that the historical standard is so pitifully low.” The differing criteria for what makes a good father (and a good mother) is skewed to say the least, and pointing out this point early in the book lends authority, credibility, and likeability. Here’s Chabon on his own father:
My father, born in the gray-and-silver Movietone year of 1938, was part of the generation of Americans who, in their twenties and thirties, approached the concepts of intimacy, of authenticity and open emotion, with a certain tentative abruptness, like people used to automatic transmission learning how to drive a stick shift.
One of my favorite essays, “The Wilderness of Childhood,” is unabashedly nostalgic, and serves an a kind of think-piece on the detriment of too closely watching our children. The freedom that children have historically had, to explore, to wander, to cultivate their imagination in play, has of course diminished in the contemporary era, with a cost to not only imaginations, but the experience of self:
The sandlots and creek beds, the alleys and woodlands have been abandoned in favor of a system of reservations—Chuck E. Cheese, the Jungle, the Discovery Zone; jolly internment centers mapped and planned by adults with no blank spots aside from doors marked STAFF ONLY. When children roller-skate or ride their bikes, they go forth armored as for battle, and their parents typically stand nearby.
There is rumination on the failure of his first marriage (“The Heartbreak Kid”), a sad but inevitable arc that ends in “operatic arguments, all night ransackings of the contents of our souls.” There are thoughts on cooking, (“The Art of Cake”), that nicely braids the book’s larger ideas of contemporary fatherhood and its “dissolving boundaries, shifting economies, loosened definitions of male and female, of parent and child.” Having had a father who was an excellent cook, that was an essay I especially enjoyed. There’s also circumcision, Jose Canseco (held up for reflection alongside Roberto Clemente), comic book heroines, and Legos, are only some of the objects of the author’s contemplation.
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As these facets of fatherhood, and selfhood, accumulate, we understand Chabon is not a perfect father, but these essays help us understand, that is a false expectation—an expectation that needs to evolve and change.
The author’s newest book is Moonglow, a fictionalized memoir. Read more here.