Manhood for Amateurs

by Michael Chabon
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Manhood for Amateurs

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2017

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.

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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 contrast, in “The Wilderness of Childhood,” he recalls the Maryland region where he grew up and the “incredible degree of freedom my parents gave me to adventure there,” with at least the potential for “frightening encounters with genuine menace, far from the help or interference of mother and father” In adulthood, he emphasizes, parenting also entails continual trial and error.

The second, and more important, way in which one may be an “amateur man” is in sharing one’s enthusiasms and passions with those one loves. To Chabon this means, first and foremost, sharing with his children. In the essay titled “The Amateur Family,” he says, Perhaps there is no perfect word for the kind of people I have raised my children to be: a word that encompasses obsessive scholarship, passionate curiosity, curatorial tenderness, and an irrepressible desire to join in the gamethe closest I have ever come for myself is amateur, in all the original best senses of the word: a lover, a devotee; a person driven by passion and obsession. . . .

In a way, this project builds upon his mother’s encouragement of his comic book club enterprise. Chabon also recalls a gift of baseball trading cards from his father that had the same effect. The qualities that made him lonely as a boy he can now share with his children, instilling in them a passion for life while also gaining from them the sense of community he lacked in childhood.

Despite employing Chesterton’s maxim, Chabon knows that the work of amateurs is often done well. Some have made significant contributions in fledgling fields of study, as did Heinrich Schliemann when he discovered the ruins of ancient Troy, long considered a mythical place. In the twenty-first century, manhood itself may be a myth. The old certainties about manhood have vanished and not only through gender politics. As women have evolved their social roles and the manner in which they live, so have men been compelled to change, indeed, to relearn every aspect of what they thought they knew.

Chabon’s subtitle“The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son”does not signify that he is focused exclusively on the roles men take on in life. Many contemporary essays on manhood and fatherhood do exhibit such a limited focus. The result is often a very narrow treatment of the subject, devolving into condescending professional advice on “new roles for men” or personal memoirs written in a self-consciously hip or flippant tone, suggesting ambiguity toward evolving masculine roles.

Chabon, on the other hand, embraces his subject wholeheartedly, with a much broader perspective than the subtitle implies. Although he has much to say in this book about male-female relationships, the book is really about all aspects of being male. His essays constitute a living record of Chabon’s development as a man, a development that may be bound up with his adult roles but is not limited to those roles. He seems to miss the 1970’s, during which he grew up, replete as that decade was with contradictions for males: He was free to explore on his own, as many boys have been through the ages, but he also became an expert cook because his single mother, who worked a fulltime job, insisted that he learn the skill. To young adults in the 1970’s, the era may have seemed revolutionary, but despite its incongruities, it was, to Chabon in boyhood, the norm. There is a sense in which Chabon has now become conservative, calling for a return to values he sees as worth preserving from that time.

Still, then as now, the world was full of unknowns and lacking in absolute answers. As Chabon’s essays make abundantly clear, an amateur at manhood can never hope to become professional (or fully proficient), and there will be practically no reward for the attempt. He writes of wondering what he will say when his children ask if he used drugs in his youth; of being at a loss for answers when one daughter reports seeing boys treat animals cruelly; of reluctance to allow his children out to play, despite his insistence on the freedom to explore. Often enough, he has to tell his children that he does not know the answers.

Amateurs, however, with their lack of formal training, are free to tackle their challenges with an open mindthough as children and as adults, they may lose their way or fail to find it to begin with. They start each adventure not knowing where they are or where they will end up. Chabon says, though, that they arrive at a place that may not be perfect but can be good enough.

Chabon tells of setting off as a fourteen-year-old with his younger brother Steve (to whom he dedicates Manhood for Amateurs) to find Schenley Park in Pittsburgh, not knowing the way but reasoning it out. At one point, he spotted the park across a gully but concededinwardly though not aloud to Stevethat “there was no obvious way to get to the other side. . . .” Eventually, they found their destination. Many years later, in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, they searched for their mother on the beach where they became separated from her, and when they found her the younger brother had to concede, “We got lost.” Nevertheless, says Chabon, “Steve just went on trusting me, and following me, and doing what I told him we were going to do. . . .” In the same fashion, years later, the two full-grown brothers support each other as they explore the mysterious territory of early manhood and new fatherhood by reminding each other of all the times in youth when they were lost but found their way. That, says Chabon, is the purpose of all the stories they tell each other: It is ultimately “the story about the day their story began.”

If Chabon’s ideal man is doomed to failure, it is because he strivesand is fated to go on strivingto know the unknowable, to reach the unreachable. His ideal male is humble because he is mystified by life, but he is also conscientious, compassionate, and considerate. Uncertain and tentative as it is, his life as a twenty-first century man still allows for greater individuality and vibrancy than manhood offered in the nineteenth or twentieth centuries.

The stories Chabon tells throughout this book are subtly interrelated, so that one must read them all to grasp his entire point. Almost by stealth, he has constructed a jigsaw-puzzle picture of his ideal maleideal partly because he accepts his lack of perfection. It is a much broader picture than is offered by those authors who focus exclusively on responding to the repeated transformations of gender roles. Long before any of those transformations, a man must have at least a working definition of what it is to be a man, indeed to be human. Despite the current emphasis on differences in consciousness, women confront the same issue as menthat is, what it means to be a man or woman. One begins as an amateur, and remains an amateur, because that is how one learns about life.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 50

Booklist 105, no. 22 (August 1, 2009): 4.

Christianity Today 53, no. 11 (November. 2009): 70.

Kirkus Reviews 77, no. 12 (June 15, 2009): 640.

Library Journal 134, no. 13 (August 1, 2009): 97-98.

New York 42, no. 32 (October 5, 2009): 91.

The New York Times, October 19, 2009, p. 1.

The New York Times Book Review, October 18, 2009, p. 15.

The New Yorker 85, no. 32 (October 12, 2009): 34-35.

Publishers Weekly 256, no. 29 (July 20, 2009): 131.

The Virginia Quarterly Review 85, no. 4 (Fall, 2009): 216.

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