Michael Chabon, Manhood for Amateurs

It wasn't fair to A.J. Jacobs, probably: on a Gulf Islands holiday this summer, I read Jacobs' My Life as an Experiment during daylight hours and the early evening, in the main house with up to a dozen other people around, and the book made no impression on me apart from being mildly entertaining.

In the evenings, though, in our separate quarters, I read with a flashlight, alone, for as long as it took for our daughter to fall asleep, and I was blown away by Michael Chabon's Manhood for Amateurs. I've loved the other books by Chabon that I've read, so I kind of expected to appreciate this one the same way other readers have, but ... wow.

It's an open, intimate, but still pitch-perfect smartass portrait of how Chabon became the (gulp) middle-aged man that he has become. In some ways, it's a book-length collection of longer-form posts like this guy's, honed and re-rewritten until they jump off the page. (I mean this as a compliment for both of them, though neither would take it that way. C'est la vie.)

Take Chabon's essay "Hypocritical Theory," which explains why he has no choice but to hate a book he really should love: Captain Underpants. Sure, it's about two subversive-ish kids, working against The Man (in the form of their principal, teacher, etc.), and it's full of potty jokes and socially unacceptable acts, but the social context is more complicated than that: "The reading of the books is not only condoned but encouraged by teachers and librarians, grateful that boys are interested in reading anything at all" (p.72). Since the 1970s marketing of Wacky Packages, the educational capitalist system has grown fat on the commodification of children's every desire, and Chabon's point is that it should hurt all our hearts to see children's anarchic and original counterculture stolen this way: "The original spirit of mockery has been completely inverted; it is now the adult world that mocks children, implicitly and profitably, speaking its old language, invoking its bygone secret pleasures" (p.73). Once upon a time, the only books like these you could see at school would be some kind of handmade samizdat, but clearly that was a golden marketing opportunity. Somehow Chabon manages not to sound crotchety while complaining about the decline of Western civilization, but it's tough to capture that in a summary.

It's genius, how Chabon explains 70s fashion -- "looking like a fool was correctly understood to be a likely if not inevitable result of the taking of risks" (p.200); recalls the futurism of a 6th-grade report on hydroponics -- "if you had tried to tell me then that by 2005 we would still be growing our vegetables in dirt, you would have broken my heart" (p.255); and utterly justifies not asking for directions, seeing in it a historically essential (-ist?) manly deferral of the human condition -- "We are born lost" (p.130).

Shut the front door, because this might become one of my very favourite books. Amazing, Manhood for Amateurs: it renders most of an entire sub-genre completely irrelevant, because it's just that complete a read.


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