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Book Review

A self-examination of one man’s life

By Eric Liebetrau
Globe Correspondent / December 11, 2009

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In “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay’’ and “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union,’’ Michael Chabon has masterfully entwined the magical wonder of childhood with the gritty, often tragic reality of adult life.

His second work of nonfiction, following last year’s “Maps and Legends,’’ takes a deeply personal approach to the often-overlapping domains of childhood with all its fantastical trappings and adult responsibility. Though many of the essays have been previously published, “Manhood for Amateurs’’ is a fully coherent, incisive examination of his roles as a father, husband, child, writer, and celebrated, self-proclaimed geek.

“The Loser’s Club,’’ a brief reminiscence of the author’s adolescent attempt to establish a comic-book club, sets the tone for the collection, a finely tuned, self-effacing candor that (purposefully) fails to mask his insecurities as a father and a writer. “Though I derive a sense of strength and confidence from writing and from my life as a husband and father,’’ he writes, “those pursuits are notoriously subject to endless setbacks and the steady exposure of shortcoming, weakness, and insufficiency.’’

Recognizing the inevitability of failure as a father, Chabon also acknowledges the “double standard at work’’ regarding the shared duties of mothers and fathers. The latter, he writes in “William and I,’’ often receive undue credit for even mild success with the most mundane of parental tasks, while the impressive achievements of the former often go unnoticed among “the monumental open-endedness of the job, with its infinite number of infinitely small pieces.’’

Chabon elegantly dissects dozens of the untold number of issues facing parents: the astonishing, frightening newness of a first child (“The Story of Our Story’’); floundering in front of the legions of prefabricated toys available today (“To the Legoland Station’’); the necessity of being honest about one’s own adolescent indiscretions (“D.A.R.E.’’); maintaining (or losing) male friendship while fighting over a girl (“The Ghost of Irene Adler’’); the frustrating struggle undertaken by fathers as they seek to grant their daughter freedom while dreading her burgeoning sexuality (“A Textbook Father’’).

The author willingly admits to having a tenuous grasp on the reins of fatherhood, but that’s merely a symptom of his gender, he says. In “Faking It,’’ the author spins a taut fable concerning the tendency of men to act authoritatively even when they have no idea what they’re doing: “This is an essential element of the business of being a man: . . . To behave as if you have everything firmly under control even when you have just sailed your boat over the falls.’’

Despite his claims to the contrary, Chabon seems to be more than competent as a father, having mastered the difficult dynamic of guiding his children without stifling their creativity or sense of self.

“Perhaps there is no perfect word for the kind of people I have raised my children to be,’’ he writes, “a word that encompasses obsessive scholarship, passionate curiosity, curatorial tenderness, and an irrepressible desire to join in the game, to inhabit in some manner - through writing, drawing, dressing up, or endless conversational riffing and Talmudic debate - the world of the endlessly inviting, endlessly inhabitable work of popular art.’’

It may not be one word, but it’s a perfect description. By so profoundly connecting with his own inner child, Chabon makes the business of raising children seem as effortless and graceful as his beguiling fiction.

Eric Liebetrau is the managing editor and nonfiction editor of Kirkus Reviews.

MANHOOD FOR AMATEURS:

The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son

By Michael Chabon

Harper, 320 pp., $25.99

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