Those of us who are not fathers or husbands understand Father’s Day through memories and envy. Neither of those mental activities are exclusively positive, at least in the case of fathers. Even as fatherhood has evolved, its old stereotypes haunt our relationship to and understanding of the title: fathers are macho, missing and manly in all the worst sense of the world. I remember my father, a man whose favorite pet name for me was “stupe” second only to “dumb shit.” As Leonard Cohen sings, “It’s Father’s Day and everybody’s wounded.”
So it seemed a good time to pour quickly through Michael Chabon’s Manhood For Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son to get some insight on the profession. We know Chabon to be a smart, entertaining writer, one who understands the tribulations of male coming of age (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay) and who has a detail-oriented eye for truth (The Final Solution: A Story of Detection). Chabon, a twice-married man with four children, also has a knack for expressing a thoroughly modern view of cultural issues.
What you’ll find in Manhood are expressions of Chabon’s own fathering in light of his childhood. (Mostly missing is Chabon’s own father — the writer’s parents divorced when he was 11 — other than a mention that dad was an obsessive collector; Chabon’s ex-father-in-law is discussed in terms of his acceptance of his son-in-law into something of a man’s club) . Much of what Chabon says is based on a kind of personal nostalgia and how some of the things he enjoyed, namely freedom, have been taken — by him — from his kids. His essay “The Wilderness of Childhood” recalls a small patch of woods that held mystery and escape in his childhood, the kind of place that doesn’t exist or would be otherwise denied if it did exist, to his children. He laments the evolution of Legos from simple building blocks to “a strange geometry of irregular polygons, a vast bestiary of hybrid pieces, custom pieces, blanks and inverts, clears and pearlescents” that seem more about marketing than creativity. He feels badly for his children and the amount of commercial “crap” they have to put up with, some of which he saw in his own childhood.
He defines his role simply. “I’m a father. Being a hypocrite is my job,” and he proves it by using everything from marijuana to Wacky Packages. In the chapter “A Textbook Father,” one that chronicles his reaction when observing boys staring at his twelve -year-old daughter walking down a hallway, he acknowledges how difficult it is to be exceptional. “It turns nout there are only nine different ways of being a father, and eight of them are distinguishable from one another only by trained experts from Switzerland, and the ninth is exactly like the others, only more so.”
He also acknowledges that being a man sometimes means putting your children at risk. In a chapter called “The Binding of Issac,” he describes that seemingly now-forgotten November night when Barack Obama walked onto the stage at Grant Park with his family and we all began to wonder at the meaning of his victory. He sees Obama’s children as everyone’s children and the realization that their perfect innocence of pain misfortune and sorrow will someday be betrayed. (How difficult this is for the President and his children is being made abundantly clear now by shameless attacks from the right.) Betrayal is a father’s fate and something of his duty. A certain kind of honesty is required to realize this. “I have abandoned my children a thousand times,” Chabon writes, “failed them, left their care and comfort to others … or neglected their needs in the name of something I told myself merited the sacrifice. All that was in the very nature of fatherhood; it came with the territory.” It’s for this kind of insight we read great writers. While much of what Chabon says in this volume has been said well before, it’s these exceptional moments that make Manhood worth reading, on Father’s Day or any other.–Cabbage Rabbit