THERE IS A COMFORT to Michael Chabon: The knowledge that your parents are as likely to have read and enjoyed The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay as you are, or a sense of satisfaction, shared among peers, in seeing his latest presiding over the bestseller shelves at Powell's. In an age with culture fragmenting as soon as it emerges—with each blog, torrent, and app narrowing its market, appealing to fewer and fewer—there's something communal and old-school reliable about Chabon. He's broadly personable, he's scary smart, and he's an excellent writer; that he speaks to so many of us is proof that the guy's clear prose and earnest insights justify his reputation.
Chabon's latest, Manhood for Amateurs, collects essays he's written for the likes of Details, the New York Times Magazine, and, um, Allure; all of them deal, to various degrees, with what the jacket sells as "the pleasures and regrets of a husband, father, and son." While each of Manhood's pieces involves, in one way or another, Chabon inhabiting those roles, the overall result is less a parade of thematically arranged essays and more a memoir. Slowly but powerfully, over the course of different pieces written for different publications about different things, Chabon comes to a realization: that the roles of a son, husband, and father aren't as disparate as they seem, and as they bleed together, they hint at something transcendent—a reminder that despite life's tireless progression, what matters is not time's passage, "but its unfathomable stillness, its immobility, the great universal fiction that there is such a thing as time."
To get there, Chabon considers all sorts of things, from the reality of being a father ("Many times over, I have lived entire days whose only leitmotifs were the vomitus and excrement of my offspring and whose only plot was the removal and disposal thereof"), to his gender's rarely spoken truths ("This is an essential element of the business of being a man: to flood everyone around you in a great radiant arc of bullshit, one whose source and object of greatest intensity is yourself"), to simple day-to-day existence, with the author's emotions laid out for both he and his readers to prod at ("The truth is that in every way, I am squandering the treasure of my life," Chabon admits in "The Memory Hole"—an admission brought on by he and his wife's tendency to chuck most of their four children's art in the garbage).
But in all of Manhood's brief, punchy essays, crammed as they are with encyclopedic recollections and wisps of cultural ephemera (never before, one suspects, has the short-lived Planet of the Apes TV show been recalled so lovingly), what emerges from Manhood is a portrait of a man, growing alongside various families and slowly understanding that while superheroes, sports, marijuana, Henry Miller, Dr. Who, and crappy children's art are the sort of things that punctuate, inform, and allow us to share our lives, there is something larger at work, something less temporary. Sometimes Manhood for Amateurs is heartbreaking, and sometimes it's hysterical; throughout, it's impossible not to enjoy it, and—still, I find this remarkable—not to think of a dozen others who will feel the same way. "I have never understood more (though still very few) of life's mysteries than I do now, or trusted my instincts to a greater degree, or written better sentences than the ones I find myself writing sometimes these days," the author admits toward the end, and yep, that sounds about right.