Fourth Estate, £16.99 Order for £15.29 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Manhood for Amateurs, By Michael Chabon
In the name of bungling fathers
Wednesday 28 April 2010
An essential element of the business of being a man is to flood everyone around you in a great radiant arc of bullshit," declares Michael Chabon in his "impractical handbook" on "the pleasures and regrets of a husband, father and son". Chabon achieved vertiginous success early in his writing career, but he has remained firmly grounded. In 1988, at the age of 25, he published his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, which became a bestseller and, with his striking good looks, he was an instant celebrity. People magazine wanted to feature him as one of their "50 Most Beautiful People", but he turned them down: "to be praised for something like that is just weird."
Chabon wears his populism with pride. His father inculcated in him a love of Star Trek, Japanese monster movies and the Marx Brothers. He professes to be the geek father of a family of geeks, although, more kindly, he has raised his four children to appreciate "obsessive scholarship, passionate curiosity and curatorial tenderness" – the world of the heedless and whole-hearted amateur.
Manhood for Amateurs is a resolutely enquiring, robust and funny exploration into the tricky business of being a passionate amateur man – the nerd, geek and fanboy in all of us guys. Fatherhood is a constant battle with a cartoon spectre of failure: "at one time or other, if not on a daily basis, each one of us fathers is the biggest asshole in the world".
He argues that men refusing to ask for directions hides deeper cartographic disorders. Imposture and faking it, in order to downplay men's lack of fitness for the job, has resulted in a grim encyclopaedia of calamities, the worst of which we are suffering now.
It takes a brave writer to claim that "misogyny comes naturally to a young man in his late teens", even though Chabon's misogyny wore a beret and quoted Nietzsche. Chabon's humanity and deep common sense allow him to address the most sensitive issues. "What is a waist, anyway?" asks his youngest son as he tries to make a snarl of lines on a piece of paper resemble a woman.
The depiction of women in Chabon's fiction is a mystery that, he confesses, "damns me to defeat and ineptitude", even though it is a mystery he will never stop trying to solve. Manhood for Amateurs is generous and witty, tender and tempestuous, startling you with the arcade-game fire-power of a precision mind free-ranging over a universe he knows so well: the "baseless optimism" of being a man.
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