Manhood for Amateurs
The Pleasures and Regrets
Harper: 306 pp., $25.99
Over the course of 20 years and six acclaimed novels, Michael Chabon has proved one of the most imaginative fiction writers of his generation. His readers have come to expect, along with silky prose and high-concept plots, a thrilling immersion in far-flung, intricately conceived worlds.
His new book, "Manhood for Amateurs," is a decidedly more traditional offering: a raft of shortish essays that traces his progression from a lonely, bookish boy to a thoughtful if addled husband and father. Thankfully, even in this, Chabon remains an invitingly restless writer. His focus swivels from unrepentant geekitude (comic books, Carl Sagan, "Planet of the Apes") to the sorrows of divorce, with welcome excursions into the wonders of Bisquick, telescopes, basement lairs and Roberto Clemente.
Chabon is more or less incapable of writing a boring sentence. Like Updike, he is an inveterate noticer, and the central appeal of his style lies in its lyric precision, whether he's describing a pack of stickers "scented with the sweet dust of bubble gum" or a fudge upside-down cake "floating like the earth's mantle on a glutinous brown magma." If the book has a unifying theme, it is the need to preserve our sense of wonder against an incessant tide of marketing. Chabon takes direct aim at the forces eroding our cultural imagination. He is especially good at diagnosing the neuroses of what used to be called the bourgeoisie. Here's his take on the paranoia that plagues modern parenthood:
"The endangerment of children . . . resonates so strongly because, as parents, as members of preceding generations, we look at the poisoned legacy of modern industrial society and . . . feel guilty. . . . [O]ur children have become cult objects to us, too precious to be risked. At the same time, they have become fetishes, the objects of unhealthy and diseased fixation. And once something is fetishized, capitalism steps in and finds a way to sell it."
For elaboration, visit your local Babies R Us outlet.
Of course, one of the occupational hazards of writing about children, particularly one's own children, is the slippery descent into sentiment. Chabon -- who has four kids, God bless him -- is not immune to spells of earnest contemplation. But more often he's sensationally funny, as when his 10-year-old son, having established that Chabon smoked pot, asks how many times: "So far, even blindsided as I had been by the abrupt onset of this conversation, I hadn't violated the guiding principle my wife and I had decided on for its eventual proper conduct: I had been honest. But now I had a moment's pause before replying, unwilling to pronounce those two simple words: one million."
I hear you, brother.
A few of the pieces are slight enough -- like a rather mystifying defense of the baseball player Jose Canseco -- to remind us that they were originally written for men's magazines, presumably on deadline. And there are particular moments when I wish Chabon had ditched his eloquent digressions in favor of a more sustained account of his own history. The apparently operatic dissolution of his first marriage, for instance, transpires in a single page. He spends more time lamenting the current state of Legos.
For the most part, though, Chabon proves excellent company, an insightful chatterbox, curious, erudite, occasionally profane and ultimately wise to the delusions of masculinity. "This is an essential element of the business of being a man," he explains, "to flood everyone around you in a great radiant arc . . . whose source and object of greatest intensity is yourself." There aren't many male writers around who would cop to such a statement and with such obvious good cheer.
Whatever its excesses and evasions, "Manhood for Amateurs" offers a fascinating glimpse inside the mind of a preeminent literary artist, one whose towering ambitions have been fueled by immense doubts, whose outsized hunger for connection derives from an aching loneliness. It would be natural to suppose -- given the general bustle and acclaim of his present life -- that Chabon has left such woes behind. But he returns to his childhood again and again as a sort of repository of galvanizing regret.
At one point, he recalls an episode in which a classmate appeared at his door, with a backgammon set under his arm. Chabon doesn't much like backgammon. "If only there were a game," he muses, "whose winning required a gift for the identification of missed opportunities and of things lost and irrecoverable, a knack for the belated recognition of truths, for the exploitation of chances in imagination after it is too late!"
If that's not a perfect description of writing, I don't know what is.
Almond is the author of the forthcoming "Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life."