Manhood for Amateurs by Michael Chabon
|August 11, 2010||Posted by Bonnie Stewart under Memoir, Non-fiction|
Published by HarperCollins, CA
It’s a truism—an old, tired, well-treaded truism—that writers are jealous. That the great wordsmiths of our culture, instead of reading hungrily to feed their story engines, tend to close in on themselves, shutting out the words of others in order to focus their own muses and quiet the voices of envy and self-doubt that plague creativity.
I never bought it. For every hermit Salinger type, and every writer who claims never to read a word another has written, I believed in my heart of hearts that there must be a hundred gifted storytellers out there lapping up books like kittens at saucers.
Writers, after all, are only readers turned inside out.
The community-focused world of blogging reinforced my assumptions. Talented writers working in the open, sharing and receiving and supporting each other with comments; an infinite writers’ circle. I stumbled into it and thought I’d hit the creative jackpot. And I crowed in judgment at those who cited envy and bowed out. Why would anyone dare miss out on the beauty of others’ stories, I thought, all Pollyanna-like, just for fear of a little jealousy?
I have only one teensy little criticism of Michael Chabon’s Manhood For Amateurs. I didn’t write it. And that fact made me jealous as hell.
Manhood for Amateurs is a smart, witty book of short essays on identity—and especially, but not exclusively, masculinity and fatherhood—in the late 20th and early 21st century. It is an extraordinarily human book; vulnerable and incisive and vivid. It romps from a lascivious critique of Wonder Woman to the birth of the author’s first child, then delves with gravitas into his mother’s post-divorce dating and the baseball cards that shape and symbolize his relationship with his father.
The book is both a paean to and a psychoanalysis of Chabon’s childhood in the mythic suburban American 60s and 70s. The cumulative effect of the stories is one of intense presence: due to Chabon’s extraordinary capacity for imagery, we relive his formative years as our own. We also come to understand them as a reflection of the formation of this larger culture we now inhabit: the one, Chabon notes, which no longer believes in The Future. A wry exploration of this loss of innocence and Eden, the book is narrative striptease of identity and voice and culture, wherein readers ultimately end up as naked as Chabon himself.
Manhood for Amateurs is a quirky and powerful narrative of the collective cultural past of North Americans of a certain age. It is also a book that paralyzes would-be memoirists of that same generation to write anything original of their own for MONTHS, I tell you. Every time I sat down to trace a memory into a larger story, I remembered that Chabon had already covered that ground. And better. Dammit.
It turns out that jealousy, though, is inspiration turned inside out. I backed off writing for awhile after reading Manhood for Amateurs, my own words swallowed by the skill and scope of Chabon’s. But as his faded from my mind, my own trickled back to me, and were made better by the model he’d provided. Manhood for Amateurs is a fine piece of writing; a rich collection of characters and cultural analysis. I hope Chabon won’t be jealous when he finds out I taped my own name to the dustjacket to remind myself what I hope to achieve one day.