So far, I am really enjoying the essays in Michael Chabon’s Manhood for Amateurs. It’s kind of refreshing to read about childhood and children in such a masculine voice. Not that Chabon uses metaphors of hunting and sports and hammers at every turn. There’s just so much ‘mommy’ literature out there – fiction and non-fiction, thank you, Ayelet – that any male voice speaking about fatherhood is a lone howl in the night.
And of course, many of the male writers writing about family life choose to be witty and sarcastic, approaching daily tasks like laundry as trench warfare. Chabon even acknowledges the relative ease with which a man can be deemed ‘a good father’ in his first essay. But his subsequent installments indicate a personal investment in truly being a good father while being completely baffled as to what constitutes one.
In the first informal meeting of the Manhood for Amateurs book club, Craig mentioned two aspects of Chabon’s style that he liked. First, most of the essays begin with a general thought that slithers along before formulating into the thesis. Sometimes it’s an allusion to the story to come, an unsatisfying sliver of cherry pie that has a high return rate regarding page turns.
In “The Hand On My Shoulder,” Chabon defines himself as in contrast to another man.
I didn’t play golf, and he had never smoked marijuana. I was a nail chewer, inclined to brood, and dubious of the motives of other people. He was big and placid, uniformly kind to strangers and friends, and never went anywhere without whistling a little song. I minored in philosophy. He fell asleep watching television. He fell asleep in movie theaters, too, and occasionally, I suspected, while driving. He had been in the navy during World War II, which taught him, he said, to sleep whenever he could. I, still troubled no doubt by perplexing questions of ontology and epistemology raised during my brief flirtation with logical positivism ten years earlier, was an insomniac. I was also a Jew, of a sort; he was, when required, an Episcopalian. (87)
I was split 50-50 by the end of this paragraph as to whether or not ‘he’ was Chabon’s father. Because of the order of the essays, we have been introduced to Chabon Senior, if only fleetingly, more of a confirmation that Chabon could find him in a family photo. But something about that niggling use of ‘he’ instead of ‘my father’ hooked me. There was an element of mystery. Would Chabon use that trick to make me turn the page only to have the ‘he’ be his father all along? Would it be someone different? (Not telling, by the way.) And either way, I turned the page – eagerly.
And I would like to point out the straight didactic that posits minoring in philosophy with falling asleep in front of the television. It was a fun choice that moved the comparisons along to how ‘he’ could sleep anywhere and Chabon cannot.
Chabon proves he excels at strong beginnings. He also provides fascinating sentence structures – Craig’s second comment. Here are some examples, albeit out of context.
The countless scenes of strafing Spitfires taking heavy German ack-ack fire, the corrugated-cardboard-and-foil George Washington hatchets, the clay menorahs (I never did make any dreidels out of clay), the works in crayon resist and papier-mache and yarn and in media so mixed as to include Cheerios, autumn leaves, and dirt – gone, all of it. (38)
It was the unmistakable air of mutual engagement the Obamas give off, the sense of being a fully operational – loving, struggling, seeking, adjusting, testing, playing, mythologizing, arguing, rationalizing, celebrating, compromising, affirming, denying – family. (44)
Dead-baby jokes; songs about vomit, snot, diarrhea, and other forms of excrement; anecdotes and urban legends of cannibalism, coprophagia, brain-eating earwigs – at the age of eight or nine, along with all of my peers, I had assumed custody of a vast repertoire of wondrously disgusting material. (69)
See a pattern here? He loves a good dash, that’s for sure.
I just reread them and realized I pulled different examples of the ways he sets up his meandering thoughts. The first and third are a long, ridiculously specific lists that end with the actual point being made. A point that could easily be a separate sentence.
The second is the most common use of dashes – an insertion of information for clarification – but with a bit of a twist since he isn’t so much as clarifying the type of family the Obamas are as elaborating on all the facets of an operational family.
(Like my art imitating art in those examples?)
A momentum builds with all these lists and dashes. Like his strong beginnings, everything pushes the reader forward, forces the hand to raise and turn the page. I appreciate the meatiness of his style.
And isn’t that the goal of every book?