Better known for his fiction, Michael Chabon endears himself with a nonfiction offering comprising eight touching essays loosely bound around the theme of being a father.
This is a tiny book. With barely 127 wide-margined pages, it can easily be read in one sitting.
In his introduction, entitled “The Opposite Of Writing”, Chabon relates meeting an established writer who advises him that if he is sincere in pursuing a career as a writer he should avoid fatherhood. This nameless writer then goes on to claim that each child a writer has will mean at least one novel they won’t have the time to write.
Chabon’s first marriage ends childless, but his second produced four children. (See interview with Chabon here.)
One of these children is Abraham, or Abe as he is mostly referred to in the first essay, “Little Man”. This is by far the longest essay in the book and deals primarily with his son’s interest in fashion and clothes. Abe accompanies his father on a trip to Paris, where the writer is to cover Paris Fashion Week for men’s magazine GQ.
Abe’s attention to sartorial detail, in turn, draws attention to him, which appears to be the point. There is much discussion of clothing brands and fashion designers, and a pair of shoes worth US$400 (RM1,600). That might sound exorbitant, but the author reassures us it is an acceptable indulgence, since the son paid for the shoes himself by raking leaves and doing other odd jobs, plus he didn’t pay full price and instead got the shoes online at a mere US$250 (RM1,000), which apparently counts as a bargain. Gripping stuff.
“Adventures In Euphemism” tackles Mark Twain’s use of the word “nigger” encountered when Chabon reads Tom Sawyer and Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn to his children. It goes just about as you might imagine it would go with a liberal white father explaining the term to his leaf-raking US$400-shoe-wearing white children.
Chabon eventually decides to use the word Negro instead, this being slightly less uncomfortable to him. But the children are wily and call out their father for double-standards and not finding a suitable euphemism for Injun Joe as well.
In “Against Dickitude”, Chabon entreats his son, nameless older brother to leaf-raking bargain-shoe-wearing Abe, to be nice to girls – though when Chabon says “girls” it’s clear from the context that he actually means young women.
His son gets the message, the part about being nice at least, but unlike the Injun Joe incident, the son doesn’t call his father out for his double-standard infantilising semantics.
“Be Cool Or Be Cast Out” brings Chabon back to his youth and his own questionable choice of clothing, which unsurprisingly segues back to Abe, that dedicated follower and trailblazer of leaf-raking-financed fashion.
The closing story, “Pops”, changes perspective and looks instead at Chabon’s father, a doctor of near superhero powers. He knows “the differing effects on Superman of the various colours of Kryptonite”. Chabon visits him after his father has had a stroke and reflects on how he has always looked up to him, but could never quite live up to him.
The apparent domestic banality of these essays is redeemed by the beautiful writing as Chabon touchingly grapples with some of the many facets of fatherhood. A light-hearted read from a talented writer.
Pops: Fatherhood In Pieces
Author: Michael Chabon
Publisher: 4th Estate, essays