All Men Fall Short of Manliness in Michael Chabon’s ‘Manhood for Amateurs’

The test for a man today, according to Michael Chabon, is not whether he can install a towel rack, but if he can look competent while doing it.

Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son
Michael Chabon
May 2010

Michael Chabon believes that men are frauds. In Chabon’s latest, Manhood for Amateurs, rather than attacking the traditional characteristics attributed to masculinity – leader, hunter, warrior – he argues that no man can fulfill them. All men fall short of ideal manliness.

“The trick of being a man,” writes Chabon, “is to give the appearance of keeping your head when, deep inside, the truest part of you is crying out Oh, shit!” The test for a man today is not whether he can screw a towel rack onto the back of a bathroom door, so much as it is if he can look competent while doing so. This notion of an outer-composure belying an inner turmoil permeates throughout the book.

Manhood for Amateurs is memoir divided into several discrete essays covering the diverse roles men play, which include father, son, brother, friend, husband, and boyfriend. Chabon’s topics range from marijuana and virginity to purses for men and Planet of the Apes, and he shows a measured amount of praise and contempt for all issues depending on which role he is speaking from.

His prose is as clear and precise as any writer can hope for, while his subject matter remains as dirty and complex as life presents it. His penchant for marrying the intimate with the epic – the “mosquitoes grazing on my ankles” and the “rasp of my beard against their cheek” while taking turns staring through a telescope with his children, not at the “myths and legends and a history of failure but information, gases and voids, cold, infernal, luminous and pure” – is the mark of an endearing storyteller. Chabon is witty, insightful, and not above using the word fuck at all the right times.

Like most sensitive writers, Chabon is susceptible to the subtle stings of life. He defines himself as the man of “retrospection”, the one with “a gift for the identification of missed opportunities and of things lost and irrecoverable, a knack for the belated recognition of truths, for the exploitation of chances in imagination after it is too late.”

This, however, is not the man Chabon wants to be. He looks up to men like Jose Canseco, who do not care what other people think about them. Chabon’s hero is the existentialist, the Nietzschean, the man who “does what he wants, when he wants to, whether it makes any sense or not, even when doing so may hurt or bring sorrow to another.”

But these are the ruminations of a younger, callow Chabon. The mature Chabon realizes that, despite the hip persona, a cold indifference and pretension of knowingness when you are clueless brings about disaster for others. The mess in Iraq and the crash on Wall Street are just two recent examples of this male propensity to deny being wrong or lost or weak at all costs. Chabon frequently addresses “this tendency to put up a front”.

Still, in the chapter “Faking It”, Chabon comes to a shrewd and nuanced conclusion on male pretense:

Perhaps in the end there is little difference between keeping one’s head and appearing to do so; perhaps the effort required to feign unconcern and control over a situation itself imparts a measure of control. If so, then the essence of traditional male virtue lies in imposture, in an ongoing act of dissimulation – fronting – which hardly conforms to the classic Kipling model of square-dealing candor.

Chabon is arguing that action is ultimately a better indicator of a man’s character than whatever hidden pangs of dread he may feel inside. In other words, a wholesome decision does not require the concord of emotions and thoughts within the decider. Bravery is, after all, not an absence of fear and doubt, but the presence of fear and doubt in the company of a prevailing courage.

As a father, Chabon is largely conservative. “I resented this change,” he writes in regards to the commercialized Star Wars and Spiderman Lego his kids will grow up playing with instead of the generic Lego blocks of his youth. His lament for the world of his childhood is matched by his disdain for the world of his children. Diluted holidays, over-protective parents, the obsolescing of radio with the proliferation of iTunes and iPods – all are grounds for mourning in Chabon’s view.

These essays, however, are not merely reactionary without reason. Chabon cares about his children, and his conservative leanings are couched, perhaps paradoxically, in a hope that all children will develop into liberated adults.

If Manhood for Amateurs could be condensed into a tract, it would read like a manifesto for the imagination. While Chabon suspects there never has been a “golden era” where everything was perfect for everyone, he wants whatever aspects of society that enhance the imagination to stay, and whatever aspects of society that hinder it to go.

“Art is a form of exploration, of sailing off into the unknown alone, heading for those unmarked places on the map,” writes Chabon. “If children are not permitted – not taught – to be adventurers and explorers as children, what will become of the world of adventure, of stories, of literature itself?” He simultaneously endorses Nietzsche’s dictum to live dangerously, while resisting a culture inclined to change if that change diminishes the ability for wonder and creativity to flourish.

And Chabon does not promote imagination just for imagination’s sake, either. He makes the case that imagination is crucial for empathy, understanding, and compassion. When discussing his wife’s disturbing thoughts of committing suicide, Chabon quotes the late David Foster Wallace, who did end up killing himself: “I guess a big part of serious fiction’s purpose is to give the reader, who like all of us is sort of marooned in her own skull, to give her imaginative access to other selves.” The “failure of imagination,” as he puts it in another essay, is partly responsible for our modern feelings of isolation and disconnect from the people around us, and we should do our utmost to avoid this failure.

At times, Chabon’s thoughts touch on a religious impulse for certainty:

My sense of myself as a father, my sense of fathers, is so deeply caught up with some kind of primal longing (which I think we all share) for inerrancy, for the word of God, for a rock and a redeemer, a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, for the needle that always always finds true north in a storm.

Although Chabon declares himself a “liberal agnostic empiricist”, he believes in the supernatural power of stories. Like Picasso, Chabon believes that art is a lie that tells the truth. Whether the narrative involves Moses, King Arthur, Achilles, or Luke Skywalker, is inconsequential; what matters is that the story is “a statement of hope, forgiveness, and love among all the people of the world.” Therefore, Chabon can believe in the story of Jesus without believing in the historical person of Jesus.

As Chabon points out, the word amateur does not solely denote someone who lacks skill or ability, but also someone who loves what they do. Perhaps the pithy G.K. Chesterton quote Chabon uses to introduce his book on manhood sums it up best: “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.”

RATING 8 / 10