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Modern Manhood, An Amateur's Guide

Oct 7, 2009

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In a controversial New York Times "Modern Love" column, Michael Chabon's wife, Ayelet Waldman, confessed that she'd have a harder time losing her husband than one of their children. After reading Chabon's Manhood for Amateurs, you'll understand why.

He emerges from these 39 beautifully written personal essays as a prince among men. Not only does he produce dazzling novels that have given genre fiction literary cachet — including The Yiddish Policemen's Union (2007) and his Pulitzer Prize-winning Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2001) — he also cooks, cleans, markets and gets his children to their appointments — and counts himself fortunate to be in a position to do so.

There have been no shortage of books on motherhood, but daddy diaries are a growing phenomenon. Chabon raises the bar with his often poignant meditations on manhood, fatherhood and aspects of his own childhood. Most of these loosely connected essays, which add up to an episodic autobiography of sorts, first appeared in Details magazine. In addition to the gorgeous prose for which he is celebrated, several lovely qualities shine through.

For starters, Chabon clearly adores and respects his mother. After his parents divorced when he was 12, his mother got her law degree and a federal job in D.C. Chabon took over dinner preparations. Instead of feeling put-upon, he expresses gratitude at having grown up "during a time of dissolving boundaries," when it was all right for a boy to want to emulate his mother.

As for his wife, in an essay titled "Looking for Trouble," Chabon offers a tribute to "quick, mercurial, intemperate" Waldman. In marrying her, he says he "answered the call of adventure," and he's thankful he did. In another nod to Waldman, he notes the disparity between expectations for fathers and mothers: "The handy thing about being a father is that the historic standard is so pitifully low."

More than marriage or writing, these essays focus on the wonders of childhood and parenting. Chabon loves the intimacy of domesticity — though he is circumspect with private details. He writes movingly that in his four children he has found "a band of companions" with whom to share various enthusiasms, something he pointedly missed when his pediatrician father moved away after his parents' divorce.

Chabon takes his kids to junky movies and erects elaborate Lego constructions with them, but he is concerned that today's kids, deprived of the open-ended play, unsupervised landscapes and vast stretches of free time that characterized his own childhood, have too little room for imagination. He worries that he is bringing up "free-range children" who, like chickens raised to near-maturity in a controlled environment, don't actually "range" much even when the doors of freedom are thrown open.

Although Chabon's subjects range from sex at 15 with a divorced friend of his mother's to pocketbooks for men, the thread that ties Manhood for Amateurs together isn't a purse string, but the idea that fandom — being an amateur "driven by passion and obsession" to "explore the imaginary world" — is what connects him not only to his children, but to his writing.

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