What is it with me and Michael Chabon’s essays? I mulishly resisted reading Maps and Legends because I thought his essays about books would be self-indulgent and self-regarding; instead, they were bright, insightful, funny, and touching. I loved that book. Still, I kept seeing Manhood for Amateurs in the bookstore, and recommended by bloggers I trust, and I dug in my heels. Somehow, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay can completely electrify me, but Chabon writing about Chabon? Maybe some other time.
But I read it, of course. And I loved it. I was reading it on an airplane, and I kept chuckling aloud, and saying, “Yes!” and “Right on!” and “Well…” out loud. The person next to me (who was taking a very, very long, like 400-page, practice test on acupuncture) must have thought I was nuts. But these essays, which are personal, and which tell the various things that make Chabon the man he is today, were wonderful. They were sly, and witty, and gentle, and opinionated. They were smart and insightful and unsparing of his own ego. They were even wise, when called for, and humble about not being wise when he knew he didn’t have real wisdom. He admitted to mistakes (something I find very attractive in an essayist) and confessed to love in both right and wrong places: his children, his ex-father-in-law, his boyhood freedom, his brother, a former friend, his wife. He doesn’t pose. He doesn’t aim for glory. He just talks about the way he learned to be a boy, and then a man, with all that implies in his life: husband, son, father, brother, lover, friend, writer.
I could quote from this book forever, but I want you to read it. So I’ll just give you two of my favorite pieces, so you’ve got the taste of it and you’ll be inspired to snag this the next time you’re at the bookstore. In “I Feel Good About My Murse,” Chabon says that
One of the fundamental axioms of masculine self-regard is that the tools and appurtenances of a man’s life must be containable within the pockets of his jacket and pants. Wallet, keys, gum, show or ball game tickets, Kleenex, condoms, cell phone, maybe a lighter and a pack of cigarettes: just cram in all in there, motherfucker…. The necessary corollary to this inviolate principle is that no man, ever, ought to carry a purse. Purses are for women; a purse is basically a vagina with a strap.
He goes on to explain the meandering process by which he went through laptop computer cases, satchels, knapsacks, and diaper bags before accepting his destiny: the man-purse. And he touches, gently and with humor, on the way he’s shed some other baggage by picking this bag up.
In my other favorite essay, “Cosmodemonic,” Chabon talks about the way his MFA program at UC-Irvine affected his transition into real adulthood (or I guess I should say manhood.) Until that experience, he says, he idolized authors and artists like Henry Miller, Jean-Luc Godard, and Marlon Brando — antisocial, misogynistic, “big-souled,” contemptuous men. In other words, says Chabon, he was a little shit, completely involved in his own version of himself.
What happened when he arrived at Irvine was that he encountered a room full of grownups, over half of them women. These people had no time for his idols.
They had left real jobs, made real sacrifices, to come to Irvine. They had mortgages and health problems, troubled marriages, debts, and obligations. And so I was obliged, or at least I felt I was, to rise to the standard they set: in their writing, for the treatment of human emotion and relationships; in their lives, for seizing this chance to learn and share and get immersed in the work; and in the workshop itself, women and men, for undertaking that collective work with respect, with charity, with tolerance, and above all — most frightening to me at the time — with no patience for the pretense and callowness and trite antisocial pose of some little shit. In the end, I think that’s the only cure for the little shit: regular exposure to the healing rays of healthy disillusion, in particular the hard-earned skepticism of grown women. Call it the Yoko Ono effect.
So I loved this book. I have more respect for Chabon because of it. And maybe, just maybe, next time, I won’t hesitate to pick up a book of his essays; instead, I’ll say, “Oh, right, he’s a fellow Doctor Who fan! This guy’s for me.”