Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son
by Michael Chabon
Reviewed by Marc Covert
Michael Chabon hates Captain Underpants.
That may sound like a piffling, self-evident position for a writer of Chabon's stature and talent -- what serious novelist wouldn't hate the whole silly poo-flinging series? -- but in reality he's setting the stage for "Hypocritical Theory," easily the most scathing of the 39 personal essays collected in Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son.
"I feel obliged to hate them," he writes of Captain Underpants books, "even though hating them makes me a hypocrite. I'm a father. Being a hypocrite is my job."
Chabon proceeds to deftly, gently -- but make no mistake, scathingly -- indict a culture he sees as having robbed today's kids of the freedom he and other children of the 1970s took for granted: "So much of their culture -- that compound of lore and play -- is now the trademarked product and property of adults."
That tacit approval of an adult culture that aggressively markets gross-out items to children is anathema to Chabon, who sees detesting Captain Underpants as a necessary means of putting distance between his adult Dad-world and that of his young sons, leaving them one small realm of subterfuge to savor; to be kids, to be free to waste time and maybe even come up with "crass, vibrant silliness that is all your own."
Those who count themselves as Chabon fans (and those who have yet to read a word of his fiction) will find Manhood for Amateurs a fascinating, gratifying foray into the influences, obsessions, loves and yes, the pleasures and regrets of the husband, father and son who wrote Wonder Boys, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and The Yiddish Policemen's Union, among other books. Chabon brings to his autobiographical essays the same things that have made his works of fiction among the most celebrated of the past 20 years -- a natural affinity for storytelling; a deep sense of nostalgia; unapologetic celebration of his many geeky, guilty pleasures; sly, often devastating humor; unbending honesty -- while at the same time avoiding the pitfalls of self-aggrandizement, cynicism, shallow epiphany and self-pity.
It takes no small amount of bravery to write truly honest personal essays like those found in Manhood for Amateurs. In "Looking for Trouble" Chabon writes of his wife, novelist Ayelet Waldman: "She is quick, mercurial, intemperate. She has a big mouth, a rash heart, a generous nature.... She is the curse and the wolfman charm in my blood, calling me to shed my flannel shirt and my pressed pants and their sensible belt and lope on all fours into the forest." (Waldman's recent book Bad Mother is a kind of counterpoint to Manhood for Amateurs.)
In "The Heartbreak Kid" and "The Hand on My Shoulder" he recounts the failure of his first marriage and the unanticipated effect it had on his mother- and father-in-law. ("They were working us into the fabric of their lives. When at last we broke all those promises that we thought we had made only to each other.... we tore that fabric, not irrecoverably but deeply.") Other essays explore the divorce of his parents, his mother's entry into the dating world of the 1970s, a late-night errand of mercy to retrieve a woman ("Rebecca, the first great love of my life") from the rat-hole apartment of her lover -- stories told in utterly humane, often beautiful terms when it would be easy to indulge in lingering resentments. While Chabon has been criticized for churning out books purely for the sake of entertainment -- a charge he will not always deny -- Manhood for Amateurs offers entertainment as well as enlightening reflections on a life earnestly, thoughtfully lived.