Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son by Michael Chabon (New York: Harper Collins, 2009. 306 pp)

One of the most celebrated writers of his generation according to The Virginia Quarterly Review, Michael Chabon was born in Washington D.C. He earned his B.A. from the University of Pittsburgh and his M.F.A from the University of California, Irvine. Chabon published his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, from his master’s thesis at the age of 25. His third novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union won Chabon the Hugo Award and the Nebula Award. He is married to poet Lollie Groth.

Humble Memoir

I’ve never been a fan of memoirs. It may sound somewhat conceited or judgmental, but my perception of memoirs tends to see the genre as a bit narcissistic. Memoirs typically promote the individual and great accolades throughout the journey of life; they are about “me”. That being said, if I ever wrote a memoir, it would be one in the vein of Michael Chabon’s Manhood for AmateursChabon’s memoir is completely different. It’s humble, and only functions to serve others.  

In his humility, he chronicles his extended adolescence, his mistakes as a father, his foibles as a son, and his pitfalls as a husband. By making himself look incredibly flawed, Chabon illustrates a caring husband, father, and son—a good, well-intentioned man despite his imperfections—who doesn’t always get it right. In the opening pages of the book, Chabon admits to being part of what he calls “the loser’s club”.

“Though I derive a sense of strength and confidence from writing and from my life as a husband and father, those pursuits are notoriously subject to endless setbacks and the steady exposure of shortcoming, weakness and insufficiency—in particular in the raising of children. A father is a man who fails every day. Sometimes things work out: Your flashed message is received and read, your song is recorded by another band and goes straight to No. 1, your son blesses the memory of the day you helped him arrange the empty chairs of his foredoomed dream, your act of last-ditch desperation sends your comic-book company to the top of the industry. Success, however, does nothing to diminish the knowledge that failure talks everything you do. But you always knew that. Nobody gets past the age of ten without that knowledge. Welcome to the club” (7).

Lucky Him

Chabon also admits raising children is a rather arduous task. Through introspection about his son, William, Chabon recognizes fatherhood, though hard, is worth it. Chabon finds himself a failure, but the successes along the way are worth the shortcomings.

“The daily work you put into rearing your children is a kind of intimacy, tedious and invisible as mothering itself. There is another kind of intimacy in the conversations you may have with your children as they grow older, in which you confess to failings, reveal anxieties, share your bouts of creative struggle, regret, frustration. There is intimacy in your quarrels, your negotiations and running jokes. But above all, there is intimacy in your contact with their bodies, with their shit and piss, sweat and vomit, with their stubbled kneecaps and dimpled knuckles, with the rips in their underpants as you fold them, 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. Lucky me that I should be permitted the luxury of choosing to find the intimacy inherent in this work that is thrust upon so many women. Lucky me” (19).

Grumpy, Simple Stories

I enjoy how Chabon uses deceptively simple essays to share treatises about life, fathering, and being fathered. The edge to his writing suggests he has been around the block, yet his pseudo-surliness leads to wonderfully poignant truths. Chabon gripes about the complicatedness of Legos, but the essay evolves into an exploration on the importance of imagination. He also humorously explains why his man purse (murse) is not feminine. And, in one of my favorites, a story of Chabon briefly meeting literary giant David Foster Wallace transforms into a story of his wife’s struggles with depression and anxiety.

Overall, Manhood for Amateurs is somewhat morose, which didn’t deter me from absolutely loving it. While the book isn’t something to which I would naturally have gravitated (the bargain rack made me pick it up), I’ve found Manhood for Amateurs to be one of the best non-fiction books I’ve read. Even women, who undoubtedly have a better reason for passing up the book due to its title, should read this book. Manhood for Amateurs is humbling, thought provoking, and thoroughly witty simultaneously. I think any man who is a father, or aspiring to eventually become one needs to read this book. Even more, any man who wants to be a good man needs to read Manhood for Amateurs, it will make you sincerely ponder who you are, and thank Chabon for making you do so.

Verdict: 4.5 out of 5
Posted by: Andrew Jacobson

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2 Comments Leave a comment
  • Amy

    You know, I've never been a fan of Chabon's novels, but this book sounds absolutely wonderful. This mom wants to read it.

    • Andrew Jacobson

      Well, Amy, I like Chabon quite a bit, though I have yet to read Kavalier and Clay. Perhaps my review contains a certain amount of bias, but you certainly should consider it.

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