Despite their diversity of topic and their previous publication in various periodicalsprincipally in Detailsthe essays collected in Manhood for Amateurs are strongly interrelated. The book groups them thematically under section titles such as “Exercises in Masculine Affection,” “Styles of Manhood,” and “Studies in Pink and Blue.” They are even more closely tied by the key word in the book’s title, “amateurs,” and ultimately by the thread of Michael Chabon’s abiding interests and passions.
It is clear that Chabon chose his title carefully for its constructive associations. He concedes that “we must accept the inevitable connotation of hopeless ineptitude that amateur carries,” but in the positive sense, an amateur (the term derives from the French word for “lover”) is one who pursues a subject or discipline with passion, though generally with little or no tangible reward. As Chabon sees it, there are two ways in which one may be an “amateur” man: in forebodings of failure and doom and in the sharing of enthusiasms that mark one as a “fan.”
The enterprises a boy or man undertakes and the attempts he makes to master his roles in life may be doomed to failure. Chabon explains this in his opening essay, “The Losers’ Club,” about his unsuccessful attempt at age ten to start a comic book fan group. Although his mother encouraged this venture (an “overwhelming maternal task”), he could not interest other children in joining. He reveals that he then “began to think of myself as a failure. It’s a habit I have never lost.” Now that he has children of his own, Chabon derives a sense of strength and confidence from his life as a husband and father (and also as a writer). He nonetheless asserts, “A father is a man who fails every day. Sometimes things work out.Success, however, does nothing to diminish the knowledge that failure stalks everything you do.”
Failure threatens in both the practical and the emotional realms. In the emotional realm, Chabon admits that he tries but often fails to understand his children’s emotions, especially those of his daughters: while I vocally admire my daughters themselves, I don’t fully understand them.When one of them is feeling sad, or crushed, or furious, or anxious,I find myself unable to jolly or cajole or, worst of all, sympathize her out of it in the way I can almost always manage to do with the one of the boys.There is a mystery in those heads that I will never stop trying to solve, even if the very act of seeking solution, of viewing women in terms of mystery, damns me forever to defeat and ineptitude.
Likewise, in the practical realm, many of the accomplishments expected of a father and husband are almost beyond his capability, according to Chabon. He describes how, confronted with the job of installing towel racks at home, he picked up his electric drill and screwdriver, suspecting that he “may well have looked as if I knew what I was doing.” He does install the towel rack, and the towels, he says, are hanging from it to this day, but “I fully expect, at any moment, in the dead of night, to hear a telltale clatter on the tiles.”
In “Faking It,” Chabon asserts that men develop a knack for dissimulating competence in both practical and emotional matters. “This is an essential element of the business of being a man: tobehave as if you have everything under your control even when you have just sailed your boat over the falls.” Many women scorn the allegedly male trait of false assurance, and conscientious men resolve to avoid it. Chabon writes, “When I became a father, I made a promise to myself not to pretend to knowledge I did not possess, not to claim authority I plainly lacked, not to hide my doubts and uncertainties, my setbacks and regrets, from my children.” He learns, though, that there are forces within and without that tend to undermine such a resolution: He confesses to a “primal longing (which I think we all share) for inerrancy,for the needle that always finds true north in a storm. And maybe that longing in one’s wife and children runs beyond the understanding of even the most painfully self-conscious of fathers.”
Given these incentives, a sense of assurance and total competence are worthy goals, even if elusive. Chabon’s epigraph for this book is G. K. Chesterton’s remark that “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” Chabon is simply acknowledging that learning involves continuing to engage in trial and error until, if ever, one gets it right. As he sees it, the freedom to explore, to engage in trial and error, during childhood is something modern-day parents seldom allow, with all their “helmeting and monitoring,corralling of children into certified zones of safety,” and he worries about the effect this lack of freedom may have on the development of children’s independence and imagination. In...
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