by Jo Keroes
By now, you’d have to be living under a rock (or a pile of unwashed laundry) not to have read about Michael Chabon’s new book, Manhood for Amateurs . All the reviewers agree that it’s smart, funny, sweet without being sentimental, and redolent of a real guy’s real familiarity with the daily details of family life. Though the pieces move back and forth from his childhood and adolescence to his life as father, husband and writer, what distinguishes them is their sharp insights into and genuine belief in the mind of a kid. My favorite piece, “The Wilderness of Childhood,” is an ode to the freedom Chabon enjoyed as a boy, juxtaposed with a pensive sense of loss. Chabon worries that as the world has become an increasingly threatening place, we’ve placed greater and greater restrictions on our kids’ freedom to roam and to be alone. He worries that these boundaries, along with the overly constructed toys and entertainments contrived for kids by market-savvy adults, hamper not just their freedom to move but to freely imagine as well. (Read “The Splendors of Crap” to understand the difference between books and movies that open up the world for kids and those that shut it down.) It’s a theme that sounds a minor chord throughout these essays, but its counterpoint is optimism, Chabon’s belief that even though the world has grown darker, somehow the child’s imagination will manage to break free of the limits we impose on it.
OK. That’s good. He’s smart and sensitive and irreverent (and, by the way, very funny). But the pieces in this collection are essays, and what essays do when they’re any good, is to take the writer (and us) to a place beyond where we started, to make something larger of his meditation on childhood freedom then and now, for instance. And this is what Chabon does again and again. In one, a memory of a kid on a bicycle becomes a meditation on childhood as a “branch of cartography,” in which children construct and endlessly “revise and refine the maps of their worlds.” In another, he muses on the “shared promise of telescopes and literature,” the connection between stories and constellations. A description of some obscure vintage baseball cards becomes symbolic of the less tangible gifts fathers give to their sons. A reflection on creative writing programs, (of which Chabon is a product), yields the following dazzling insight: “We are accustomed to … believing that ‘our most precious resource is our children.’ But the true scarcity we face is of practicing adults, of people who know how marginal, how fragile, how finite their lives and stories and their ambitions really are but who find value in this knowledge … because they know their condition is universal, is shared.”
Chabon may not be the first to point these things out, but no one else gets the details quite so right or evokes the sense of wonder and loss quite so poignantly and expansively, persistently linking the daily particulars to something larger, often to art and its making. Read these essays as they were meant to be read, one or two at a time. You’ll like some better than others. Some will surprise, some will make you laugh out loud, several will make you wish for a partner who knows you as well as Chabon loves his wife. All will make you pause and be glad you read them.