Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces

by Michael Chabon
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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1771

Author: Michael Chabon (b. 1963)

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Publisher: Harper (New York). 144 pp.

Type of work: Essays, memoir

Time: 1970s and 2010s

Locales: Ellicott City, Maryland; Berkeley, California; Phoenix, Arizona

Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon’s new book,Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces, collects essays, some of them previously published, about his children and his father.

Pulitzer Prize–winning author Michael Chabon’s new book, Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces, opens with an essay in which Chabon recalls some advice he once received from a famous male writer at a party. Chabon was just about to publish his first novel. He was also about to get married. “Don’t have children,” the writer said. “That’s it. Do not.” Children steal one’s time, the writer said. He went on to share with Chabon a nugget of wisdom attributed to the late novelist Richard Yates: “You lose a book for every child.” Chabon, now the author of fourteen books, went on to divorce, remarry, and father four children—two daughters and two sons—with writer Ayelet Waldman. Framing the narrative in this way, Chabon suggests that the book to follow contains a deeper examination of his own life and choices, but fatherhood is merely the glue that loosely holds together his new collection of essays, many of them previously written for magazines. “I realised I wasn’t interested in the question of balancing one’s art and one’s life as a parent,” he told Alex Preston in a May 13, 2018, interview for the UK Guardian. “I’m not saying it isn’t a problem, but I was trying to consider a different question—what difference does it make in the end, either way?”

In the book, Chabon writes about his younger son’s love for fashion and, later, his older daughter’s love for baseball. In “Against Dickitude,” he muses on raising feminist sons, and in the collection’s last essay, “Pops,” he writes about his distant but ultimately loving relationship with his own father, but the book is less about being a father than being a child. Chabon recalls his own awkward adolescence but, more importantly, tries to place himself in the minds of his children as they experience theirs. As for his decision to become a father himself—and the phantoms of the four books that Chabon, as the saying goes, never got to write—Chabon writes, “Once they’re written, my books, unlike my children, hold no wonder for me; no mystery resides in them. . . . Most of all, my books, unlike my children, do not love me back.”Courtesy of HarperCollins

Chabon published his first book, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, in 1988. Screenwriter-director Rawson Thurber adapted it into a film in 2008. In 1995, he published a revered novel called Wonder Boys, about writing, mentorship, and friendship. It was also adapted into a film, starring Michael Douglas and Tobey Maguire, in 2000. Despite that book’s enduring popularity, Chabon is perhaps best known for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000), about two Jewish cousins who make it in the comics industry in the years surrounding World War II. The book is popularly known as Chabon’s magnum opus and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2001. Chabon’s other well-known works include The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007), an alternative history novel that won a Hugo Award for Best Novel, and the collection of essays Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son (2009), in which he explores his own childhood memories in the context of raising children. Pops can be considered the spiritual sequel of the latter.

The book’s second essay, “Little Man,” was originally published in GQ magazineas “My Son, the Prince of Fashion” in 2016. In it, Chabon and his younger son, Abe, attend fashion week in Paris. Chabon has been commissioned to write about the event, but for Abe, the week is a formative experience. (His attendance at fashion week is a bar mitzvah gift.) The thirteen-year-old is a knowledgeable and passionate fashion devotee. In long passages, Chabon lovingly describes his son’s budding expertise. “Abe was just a kid who loved clothes,” Chabon writes. “He loved talking about them, looking at them, and wearing them, and when it came to men’s clothing, in particular the hipper precincts of streetwear, he knew his sh——.” Chabon was bored by the long waits and loud music, but Abe critically engaged with the work presented by designers like Paul Smith and Issey Miyake. At one event, Virgil Abloh, then the designer for Off-White, singles Abe out of a crowd. “Now this dude here, that’s what I’m talking about,” Abloh says appreciatively to a room full of models and press. But Abe was particularly energized, Chabon writes, by seeing other stylishly dressed men like himself, wearing their best ideas standing in the lines outside of each show. “Every night he had come home and gone through his suitcase, reviewing the elements of the wardrobe he’d brought with him . . . combining and recombining them, laying out his little self-portrait on the floor,” Chabon writes. The experience kindles in Chabon an important realization about his son: Abe had found, in Chabon’s words, his “people.” Chabon marvels at witnessing his son shaping his identity in real time. © Sarah Lee

The next essay, “Adventures in Euphemism,” was originally published by the Atlantic in 2011 as “The Unspeakable, in its Jammies.” In it, Chabon writes about reading Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to his children and having to explain to them the frequent use of the n-word, particularly in the latter. In “The Bubble People,” Chabon and his older daughter discuss the differences and similarities among Americans from different parts of the country. Their hometown, Berkeley, California, allows them to embrace their inherent weirdness, they agree. That essay was also originally published by the now-defunct Details magazine, under the headline “One of Us.”

“Against Dickitude,” also originally published in Details, finds Chabon disturbed by one son’s behavior toward a female friend. When the girl texts the son, he appears to delight in brushing her off. Chabon muses on feminism and empathy, recalling his own mother, who once implored him to always call a girlfriend back if he tells her he will do so. The moment made an impression on him but did not necessarily have a positive effect on his early romantic relationships. Chabon writes that he does not want his son to “be a dick” to women, but the thought forces him to examine the times in his life when Chabon was exactly that. The essay presents fruitful lines of inquiry—how best to raise good sons, how to make good on past mistakes—but the piece is too short to explore them fully.

In “The Old Ball Game,” another essay first published in Details, Chabon writes about discouraging one of his sons from playing Little League. The vehemence of this position surprises Chabon himself, a self-described obsessive baseball fan who resented his father not letting him play Little League. Of course, Chabon’s fears are realized; his then nine-year-old son hates the experience and Chabon’s love of the sport is tainted by other, overzealous fathers. In the end, his love is rekindled in sharing the game—watching the professionals, not playing themselves—with his enthusiastic and curious twelve-year-old daughter.

The final pair of essays both address the young Chabon’s efforts to establish his own identity, over and against both peers and family. In “Be Cool or Be Cast Out,” also first published in Details, Chabon recalls his own early attempts at asserting his identity—in the form of an ill-advised T-shirt with the word “Libertine” printed on it—and watching his children’s own embarrassing attempts, in the face of taunting, to distinguish themselves. In the collection’s last essay, “Pops,” Chabon recalls accompanying his own father, a doctor, on house calls. After the work was done, they ate at a Mexican restaurant, and Chabon’s usually stoic father recalled for him anecdotes of his childhood in Brooklyn, New York. As an adult, those memories had a particular effect on Chabon. He realizes that those stories and opinions have been implanted in his imagination forever.

Pops received positive reviews. In a starred review for Publishers Weekly, a reviewer described it as a “deeply affecting collection” that avoids “an overly sentimental tone or rose-colored perspective.” A reviewer for Kirkus wrote that Chabon “combines perfect pitch of tone with an acute eye for detail.” Noting the breeziness of the work, the critic concluded: “Even when he’s driving at cruising speed, Chabon takes his readers for an enjoyable ride.” Writer and director Judd Apatow, who reviewed the book for the New York Times, wrote, “Chabon’s book feels like a late-night talk with a friend about how much we love our kids and how hopeful we are that we’re better dads than we fear.” Apatow writes that, at first glance, Pops appears to merely compile Chabon’s magazine work, but the final essay—the one about Chabon’s father—elevates the collection. Chabon, the son of a doctor who did not want to be a doctor himself, “gained an identity and a calling” as a storyteller by being his father’s son. “In just a few pages I understood why Chabon found such meaning in fatherhood, making it such a priority in his own life,” Apatow wrote. Fiona Sturges wrote in the Guardian that Pops was not “a misty-eyed treatise on the miracle of life,” but rather “a heartfelt and thoughtful meditation on what parenthood asks of a man.” “While no great parenting secrets are uncovered in this slim volume, Chabon has a knack of locating the fundamentals of the parent-child relationship in the innocuous and the everyday,” she concluded.

Review Sources

  • Apatow, Judd. “Michael Chabon Tries Hard to Be a Good Dad.” Review of Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces, by Michael Chabon. The New York Times, 30 May 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/05/30/books/review/pops-michael-chabon.html. Accessed 21 Dec. 2018.
  • Review of Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces, by Michael Chabon. Kirkus, 20 Feb. 2018, www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/michael-chabon/pops-chabon. Accessed 21 Dec. 2018.
  • Review of Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces, by Michael Chabon. Publishers Weekly, 26 Feb. 2018, www.publishersweekly.com/9780062834621. Accessed 21 Dec. 2018.
  • Sturges, Fiona. “Pops by Michael Chabon Review—What Parenthood Asks of a Man.” The Guardian, 17 May 2018, www.theguardian.com/books/2018/may/17/pops-by-michael-chabon. Accessed 21 Dec. 2018.
  • Upchurch, Michael. “Michael Chabon Delves into the Mysteries of Raising Children.” Review of Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces, by Michael Chabon. The Boston Globe, 21 June 2018, www.bostonglobe.com/arts/2018/06/20/michael-chabon-delves-into-mysteries-raising-children/A209TXVPuAN90DjlYixwMN/story.html. Accessed 21 Dec. 2018.

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