“A father is a man who fails every day,” Chabon writes in the opening essay of his new collection, Manhood For Amateurs: The Pleasures And Regrets Of A Husband, Father, And Son. Mercifully, it’s his only attempt to knock out such a definition: Instead, to mark his crooked passage from preteen comic-book lover to attendee at his daughter’s bat mitzvah, he confronts and asserts his doubts the same way he gives his fictional worlds the spark of life, by piling on detail after brave detail.
Some of the essays in Chabon’s first directly autobiographical book invoke masculine clichés; others dismantle them. In “Faking It,” he sees in a towel rack a legacy of stubbornness that can be twisted to bad ends; later, he defends his right to cook for his family, hesitates over having his son circumcised, and reconstructs the conversation in which he decides to tell his children he once used drugs. Archetypes of The Sensitive Man and The Geek also weigh in—movingly in “The Ghost Of Irene Adler,” on how a woman can break up a male friendship through no fault of her own, and playfully in “The Amateur Family,” as he beams with pride at his children’s obsession with Doctor Who.
The apotheosis of this latter personality is the manifesto “The Splendors Of Crap,” which defends the mass-art detritus of his youth against modern children’s entertainment and its “unctuous butlers of the imagination.” Verging into the ground covered by his 2008 collection Maps And Legends, Chabon cracks open a childhood memory of playing “Planet Of The Apes” to raise a theory of play that’s simultaneously self-contradictory and immensely cheering to anyone exposed to toxic levels of pop culture.
Chabon’s supple prose can’t fill in every gap, though, and in playing Stoic Man, he can just as skillfully duck an expected note of introspection. “The Gift” wraps his relationship with his father in the banner of American cliché, the same type that works him into high dudgeon when he’s watching his daughter with the neighbor kids in “A Textbook Father.” Two timelier pieces, on David Foster Wallace’s suicide and Barack Obama’s election, lack polish, and suggest the need for further reflection. Still, Chabon rarely shrinks from discomfort with labels and life, and his failures of nerve are remarkably few.