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Manhood for Amateurs:
The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father and Son

Michael Chabon
Harper, 320 pages

Manhood for Amateurs
Michael Chabon
Michael Chabon's works of fiction include The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, A Model World, Wonder Boys, and Were-Wolves in Their Youth. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's, Esquire, and Playboy and in a number of anthologies, among them Prize Stories 1999: The O. Henry Awards. He lives in Berkeley, California, with his wife, Ayelet Waldman, also a novelist, and their children.

Michael Chabon Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales
SF Site Review: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Kincaid

Some years ago, I was asked to review a group of debut novels from new American writers. Several of the authors went on to become big names, but the work that stood out for me was The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988) by Michael Chabon. However, it was not until I re-read the novel several years later that I realised how much this story of crime and sexuality in modern day Pittsburgh was actually suffused with references to science fiction. I kept stumbling over H.P. Lovecraft or H.G. Wells or Star Trek, not only in that first novel but in his subsequent ones (as I write this, his website carries a picture of him carefully photoshopped onto the bridge of the USS Enterprise). When he started producing more or less straight genre fiction (Summerland (2002), The Yiddish Policemen's Union (2007), Gentlemen of the Road (2007)), therefore, it came as no surprise whatsoever.

That same undercurrent of sf runs through this new collection of essays. Very few of them directly address genre, though the collection opens with him trying and failing to launch a comics fan group when he was a child, but fantasy and science fiction provide images and analogies right the way through. When talking about his son's circumcision, for example, he notes that circumcision is supposed to dull sexual pleasure but compares this to the extra colours in the Barsoomian spectrum, something he has read about but can't imagine.

Mostly written for Details (there are 39 essays in this collection, only six of them first appeared elsewhere, and one is original to this collection), these essays are all roughly the same length and tend to follow the same pattern, a pattern that goes back to Montaigne. Chabon starts with something small and personal -- he talks a lot about his four children, for instance -- and then lets the subject lead him away, into memory or outwards to some more wide-ranging conceit, before bringing it neatly back to the starting point and wrapping it all up in a couple of thousand words. They are not profound essays, nor are they intellectually challenging the way his essays in Maps and Legends (2008) were (it is curious that his publishers proclaim this as his first major work of non-fiction, forgetting that rather more substantial collection of essays, although it is perhaps no coincidence that the earlier collection came from a different publisher), but they are charming, revealing, often funny, and a reminder that Chabon is simply one of the best writers at work in America today.

Perhaps the best way to read this book is as a fragmented autobiography. He had a somewhat peripatetic childhood, though he was raised mostly in the suburbs of Baltimore. We learn about his younger brother, his explorations of the neighbourhood, his childhood friends, his devotion to science fiction and comic books, his parents' divorce, learning to cook, the time he woke on a bed put up in a cellar to find the cellar was flooded (with a note about how often cellars have featured in his subsequent novels). As he grows older we are told about his sexual experiments, his use of drugs, his time at the University of California that produced The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, his failed first marriage and his in-laws, and his meeting with his current wife, Ayelet Waldman, on a blind date when he was encouraged to go because she gave good head (there are many moments in this book when you think being an intimate of Chabon must be a very risky business because of what might subsequently see print). Finally, and perhaps predominantly, we read about Chabon as father, how he gets praised for being a good father for doing things his wife would do without attracting comment, dealing with his children's questions, their paintings, the stages in their Jewish upbringing (his son's circumcision, his daughter's bat mitzvah).

Two things thread their way through the whole book. One is his sense that today's children are allowed less freedom than he was, and are thus missing out on a vital part of becoming an independent human being. He keeps catching himself out, worrying if it is just age speaking, but there is a great deal of liberal good sense in what he says. The second thread is his relationship with science fiction. 'I have confused ideas of deity,' he says at one point, 'heavily influenced by mind-altering years of reading science fiction' (21). So we learn about the books and comics he read, the television programmes which seem closely linked with which childhood friend he would visit, and in one finely comic passage we learn how the children's Dr. Who T-shirts startled the English cloakroom attendant at a Washington museum which leads into an essay on being a fan. (It's worth noting that he casually and unselfconsciously uses 'fen' as the plural of fan, which suggests he is closer to the community than we might imagine.)

You cannot escape the science fiction, it is clearly and unequivocally a part of his world view. At the same time, it is not a dominant part of this collection (the way it was, say, in Maps and Legends). This is not a book you should read if you want to find out about, or encounter staggering insights into, genre. It is a book you should read simply for the pleasure of reading Michael Chabon, and maybe, just incidentally, for the pleasure of encountering someone for whom science fiction is simply part of the air he breathes.

Copyright © 2010 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. His collection of essays and reviews, What it is we do when we read science fiction is published by Beccon Publications.

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