Friday, February 19, 2010

Manhood for Amateurs

There's an undeniable savor to reading something that's not for you. Wedding manuals when you're not getting married. Syllabi for courses you are not taking. Your parents' dilapidated, poorly hidden copy of the Joy of Sex when you are twelve. Especially, those copies of Martha Stewart Living which contrive to thrust themselves into your hands even though you are not now, nor ever will be, the kind of human being who glue-guns pine cones together to make a centerpiece.

That savor, that delicious tang of none-of-your-business, probably explains why I read so many books about men. The number of books I've read about womanhood is a big, fat number that rhymes with "hero," but I've definitely plowed through The Dangerous Book for Boys, Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Lives of Boys, Monster: Adventures in American Machismo, and, most recently, Manhood for Amateurs, Michael Chabon's book of essays on boyhood, manhood, husbandhood, and fatherhood.

That's a lot of hoods! Fortunately, Chabon is an enthusiastic and articulate tour guide, trotting you up and down the streets of his life like a one-man welcome wagon. Here are his wife and kids; here's his mother. Here's the woman who took his virginity; here's his first love. You sense, throughout, Chabon struggling to close the gap between these archetypal placeholders -mom, wife, kids- and the acute specificities which preoccupy him. It's as if he's trying to pull a construct of manhood -a man-shaped, man-hearted Frankenstein- from the general muck of being alive.

It's tricky. In part, this is because manhood -the very notion that maleness isn't the great wide everywhere- is a newfangled concept. Maleness was, for a very long time, the default point of view: a vantage point so universal not too many folks felt the need to articulate it. Then, too, self-reflection is stereotypically the province of women. For a man to practice it, to turn an assessing gaze not only on himself but on his entire gender, he must possess, well....


And Chabon is ballsy. He's also not quite a natural essayist in that, time and again, he makes the same turn in his writing, the pat, safe turn that says: oh, here's something interesting, but now we will back away from it very slightly and let it become mildly & poetically blurred while we stand very still on the edge of the existential abyss. It's the kind of turn familiar to any safari-goer, as well as to any reader of short stories written by graduates of the Iowa Writer's Workshop. It's a lovely literary motion, but it works better in Chabon's novels, where you don't learn to anticipate it, like a rat jonesing for a pellet, every eleven pages.

Perhaps most interesting is that, for all its stated preoccupation with manhood, Chabon's book made me think only glancingly about what it is to be a man. What it is to be human, yes. What it is to be a child, to grow older, to slip rung by rung down the generational ladder. Even more so, Chabon's book made me think about pace. Could it be that the rhythm of your reading, the pace at which you take a book -a life- is as important as its text? Some, you consume headlong. Others, you pick up and drop, pick up and drop, marking in their margins, staining them with coffee, shoving them under the bed and rediscovering them, all the way through winter into spring.

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