July 20, 2019

The Adventures of Michael Chabon

History and fantasy are the stock-in-trade of Michael Chabon.  The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, which won a Pulitzer, is set in the shadow of the Holocaust and World War II and focuses a pair of Jewish cousins who team up to create a comic-book superhero.  Last year’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, yet another of Chabon’s many best-sellers, imagines an alternate world in which the Jewish homeland is established in Alaska rather than Palestine.

Now we have an opportunity to explore the mundane side of Michael Chabon’s life in the newly-published Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father and Son (Harper: $25.99, 306 pps.).  These short pieces, previously published in Details, Vogue, the New York Times Magazine, and other publications, represent the kind of journalism once practiced in the pages of the Los Angeles Times by Jack Smith and Al Martinez and by their fellow columnists in other newspapers across America.

Still, now and then, Chabon brings a certain sly humor to his musings about the life of a modern American male in Manhood for Amateurs.  Where else, after all, will you read the theological rant of a young father on the occasion of his son’s bris?

“The stated reason for this minutely savage custom is that God – the God of Abraham – commanded it,” Chabon writes in an essay titled “The Cut.” “That is not an argument that ought to hold a lot of water with me. I have confused ideas of deity, heavily influenced by mind-altering years of reading science fiction, that do not often trouble me, but one thing I know for certain, and I have known since the age of five or six, is that I really can’t stand the God of Abraham. In fact, I consider Him to constitute the pattern to which every true asshole I have ever known in my life has pretty well conformed.”

Such revelations, as it turns out, are rare in Manhood for Amateurs. More often, Chabon explores the awkward and embarrassing moments in family life —- how he answered his young daughter’s uncomfortable question about what it feels like to get stoned, why he objects in principle to pink Lego blocks, why he carries a purse (or, as he puts it, a “murse”), and the unsettling experience of witnessing his adolescent daughter’s coming of age.

“I don’t care to give sex any more credit than it deserves, nor do I necessarily prefer it at any given moment of the day to drugs, rock and roll, watching The Wire, or the sight of a paper packet filled with well-salted pommes frites still hissing with oil from the fryer,” he declares in “A Textbook Father.” “I don’t begrudge sex or its indisputable pleasures to anyone in any variation that consenting partners can safely attempt or devise – not even to my children, when the times come and they are of age, well informed, and emotionally ready.”

Not every reader of Chabon’s best-sellers will be charmed by these essays, but it’s one of the perks of solild literary success to take a break from the heavy lifting and put together a book like this one.  Aside from the occasional flashes of insight and humor, however, it struck me as an item of nostalgia precisely because the newspapers where these kinds of stories once flourished are dead or dying. In that sense, of course, it’s exactly the kind of exercise that we ought to expect from a master of nostalgia like Michael Chabon.

Remembrance of Things Past:  Not long ago, I blogged about a demonstration at the offices of the Los Angeles Times that featured the dumping of a load of manure.  As I recalled it, the demonstrators were aggrieved poets who objected to the newly-announced policy of not reviewing poetry books in the Los Angeles Times Book Review.  Jack Miles, who was serving as Times book editor at the time of the poet’s demo, remembers it differently: “You have conflated two demonstrations on First Street,” he writes. “The poets did demonstrate, and one sign said ‘Miles to Go.’ But the manure was in response to something else.”  Neither of us, however, can recall what prompted the manure-dumping even after I spent some time online in search of the answer.

Jonathan Kirsch is the book editor of The Jewish Journal.