This book review of Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures of Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son by Michael Chabon (published by Fourth Estate, Aus$32.95) originally appeared in the Australian Jewish News in February 2010.
At 46 years old, Michael Chabon is no longer a young American-Jewish writer, but well and truly entering middle age – although with progressive sympathies and his young and crazy memories still intact. This Pulitzer Prize-winning author (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay) has marked out an important place in American-Jewish literature. Equally comfortable in contemporary comic realism (The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and The Wonder Boys, which was made into a film starring Michael Douglas), alternate history (The Yiddish Policeman’s Union), young adult fantasy (Summerland) and short stories (A Model World and Werewolves in Their Youth), the Berkeley California-based Chabon has now turned his hand to a kind of memoir in Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures of Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son. (Here is the publishers website for that book, and here is the Amazon.com link.)
His new book is a selection of 39 short pieces, each running around eight pages long (making it particularly easy to read on the bus or train), and presents a mixed bag of topics. There is lots about his family (he is married to the Jewish-American author Ayelet Waldman, and they have four children together), some of which approaches sappiness at times: I did not need his short chapters on how his children bring home artwork from school or the mysteries of lego, but Chabon is a writer of such wonderful prose that I forgive him.
He is capable of analysing the recent history of American feminism, male friendship, the love of a father-in-law, early sexual experiences, the process of writing itself and classic literature, with insights such as “Most great stories of adventure, from The Hobbit to Seven Pillars of Wisdom, come furnished with a map”. Astonishingly, he willingly delves into some truly painful life experiences, such as his first marriage (to a non-Jewish woman) and the chilling description of his own very recent reactions to his (current) wife’s bi-polar disorder and deep depression.
Chabon’s book is like reading the articulate musings of a very good friend, for one of the tricks of his success is that he genuinely appears to like and respect not only his characters but his readers. The result is a truly pleasurable read, particularly for someone like me, a Jewish family man not all that much older than Chabon.
Chabon describes himself as “a liberal agnostic empiricist, proud to be a semi-observant Jew”, and his Jewish identity and commitment pervades most of his writing. Three chapters stand out, one on the Jewish attitude towards Christmas, one on circumcision (“The Cut”) – which lovingly captures all the mixed feelings which a modern, semi-secular Jewish American parent has about the procedure, and one on bat mitzvahs (“Daughter of the Commandment”), which concludes the book. For some reason I opened Manhood for Amateurs to this final chapter, as it turned out on the day of my father’s Yahrzeit, to read the following words:
My oldest child became a bat mitzvah in an afternoon Sabbath service. She read from the Torah in flawless Hebrew, taught us something about what she had just read in poignant English, and was blessed by a woman of readily apparent holiness. And then she was on her way: a daughter of Commandments.
Now, everyone knows – sorry, Maimonides – that there really is only one Commandment and that, sooner or later, we all obey it. Toward the end of every Sabbath service, those in mourning or observing the anniversary of a parent’s death rise for the ancient Kaddish, and as the parent of that day’s bar or bat mitzvah, you can sit there beaming, proud, filled with love and knowing – knowing – that if you have done your job properly, it will not be long before your child will be getting up from a pew somewhere to take note in Aramaic of your own utter absence from the world.
Anyone who has had a child recently bar- or bat-mitzvahed (as I have) and has lost a parent (or two), cannot be moved by this. I certainly was; worth the price of the book for that alone.
(Postscript: Interested in a useful and informative fan website devoted to Michael Chabon? Go to http://www.sugarbombs.com/kavalier/.)