The (Ex­tremely) Short, Happy Father­hood Mem­oir Of Michael Chabon

Forward Magazine - - Reviews - By Neal Pol­lack


By Michael Chabon

HarperCollins, 144 pages, $19.99

“You can write great books,” a writer, a “great man,” once told Michael Chabon at a party on the Truc­kee River, “or you can have kids. It’s up to you.” That’s an in­ter­est­ing sen­ti­ment, though I found my­self won­der­ing who this “great man” was. Ray­mond Carver? Tom Wolfe? Philip Roth, the great­est of men, him­self? Re­gard­less, let’s re­move the sus­pense: Chabon chose both to have kids and to write great books. He could bring home the ba­con, fry it up in the pan and never ever let us for­get he’s a man.

This choice, which Chabon makes with all the wis­dom of Solomon and none of the tragedy of So­phie, gets re­layed in the open­ing es­say of his new “book,” “Pops: Father­hood in Pieces.”

I put the word “book” in quotes be­cause, some­one must say it: “Pops” is not re­ally a book. It is a short in­tro­duc­tion, a GQ ar­ti­cle, a hand­ful of De­tails col­umns, a bite-sized At­lantic piece, and a kind and mov­ing es­say about Chabon com­ing to terms with his el­derly fa­ther that ap­peared ear­lier this year in The New Yorker.

This all takes up ‹ŒŽ pages, but they are small pages that hold not even Œ‘‘ words each. Some novel­las run longer. Some Thomas Pyn­chon sen­tences run longer. The only book I have on my shelves of equiv­a­lent size is “Howl.” But “Pops” is not “Howl.” It’s more like “Amus­ing, Ten­der, Mildly Self-E”ac­ing Kvetch.” Chabon, if he does say so him­self, is a pretty good, happy, and com­mit­ted dad.

“Un­like my own fa­ther,” he writes, “I would be around for my chil­dren when­ever they needed me, over break­fast, do­ing home­work, when they learned to swim, to cook, to ride a bi­cy­cle; when they cried into their pil­lows. I would be present in my chil­dren’s lives. In short, my door would al­ways be open to them.”

I met Chabon twice briefly, back in the day when I was a writer who had access to other writ­ers. Based on that, and on the tes­ti­mony of ev­ery­one I know who’s ever met him, he’s the nicest of nice guys. There’s no rea­son to doubt his self-assess­ment. The sto­ries in his not-re­ally-a-book are true.

Pops leads o” with “Lit­tle Man,” Chabon’s now-leg­endary GQ ar­ti­cle about tak­ing his fash­ion­ista youngest son, Abe, to

Paris Fash­ion Week. Shared on ev­ery sin­gle Face­book feed within the Blue State bub­ble, “Lit­tle Man” falls di­rectly into the cat­e­gory of “things you want to hate but you can­not be­cause they are so good.” The piece is not only a funny, grumpy por­trayal of a bizarre cul­tural phe­nom­e­non, it’s also a bril­liantly de­tailed and supremely lov­ing por­trait of a truly unique kid. It will be widely an­thol­o­gized and taught like only the best non­fic­tion writ­ing can.

In that piece, Chabon pro­vides the per­fect tem­plate for par­ent­ing the ge­net­i­cally quirky: “I didn’t need to fathom Abe or his stylis­tic im­pulses; I needed only to let him go where they took him and, for as long as he needed me, to fol­low along be­hind.” He uni­ver­sally ex­presses what ev­ery par­ent who cares about his or her kids wants, or at least tries, to do.

By the time I was done reread­ing “Lit­tle Man,” “Pops” was al­ready onethird done. The rest of Chabon’s cul­tural prod­uct is es­sen­tially the same con­tent that’s ap­peared in ev­ery par­ent­ing blog for the past ‰Š years, like Bab­ble or Cool Mom Picks or Rad Dad, or what­ever, just writ­ten more ele­gantly and with more semi­colons. Chabon de­liv­ers some im­por­tant life lessons: Don’t be racist, don’t be sex­ist. One of the es­says is ti­tled “Against Dick­i­tude.” Through it all, he re­spects his chil­dren as in­di­vid­u­als, even when they don’t nec­es­sar­ily de­serve that re­spect. As Homer Simp­son, a much less woke fa­ther than Michael Chabon, once said, “Lisa, the point of ‘Moby Dick’ is, be your­self.’”

A sort-of por­trait of the Chabon fam­ily emerges: artsy, aware, kind and pros­per­ous, a less dys­func­tional, Berke­ley, Cal­i­for­nia-based ver­sion of “The Royal Te­nen­baums,” where clas­si­cal mu­sic or “All Things Con­sid­ered” plays as a sound­track to vo­ra­cious novel read­ing. Yet there are el­e­ments miss­ing from this pic­ture that an ac­tual book might have filled in; other than Abe, who gets a beau­ti­ful star turn, the Chabon kids are mys­te­ri­ous. His daugh­ter re­mains name­less. All we know about her are a cou­ple of her quirky fash­ion choices and the fact that she’s will­ing to watch base­ball with her dad. The other sons barely get any press at all, and Chabon’s wife, the nov­el­ist Ayelet Wald­man, re­ceives clos­eto-zero men­tion.

Wald­man writes her own mem­oirs, so her story is hardly un­told. But what’s miss­ing from “Pops” is any sense of fam­ily dy­namic. Even the calmest house­holds can barely con­trol the chaos, es­pe­cially with four kids. Where is the poop? Where is the barf and the blood? Where are the slamming doors and all the ex­cla­ma­tion of “I hate you”? Where are the long, bor­ing af­ter­noons spent in the car?

Chabon’s writ­ing dis­plays a lit­tle angst, but there’s no sense of the low-level panic, fi­nan­cial, emo­tional or oth­er­wise, that char­ac­ter­izes the lives of Amer­i­can fam­i­lies. His wis­dom is very wise, and his prose quite beau­ti­ful. But I longed to see him make a mis­take, for some­thing to go ter­ri­bly wrong. And no, skip­ping out on the Pi­galle show at the Museé Pi­casso doesn’t count.

For a bet­ter sense of what it’s re­ally like to be a mod­ern writer-dad, I rec­om­mend turn­ing to Drew Ma­gary’s “Some­one Could Get Hurt.” It’s an an­gry, weird and bit­ter book, but also, like Chabon’s, it’s the heart­felt tes­ti­mony of some­one who loves his many kids. When Ma­gary writes about base­ball, he doesn’t de­scribe Chone Fig­gins as a “pesky lit­tle spark plug,” nor does he drop sen­tences like “For em­pa­thy you need to call upon the great­est of all your hu­man in­her­i­tances, stronger than vi­o­lence, able to leap the most en­trenched hi­er­ar­chies in a sin­gle bound.” Most im­por­tant, though, Ma­gary wrote an ac­tual ‰˜™-page book.

Then again, the ini­tial print run of “Pops” is š˜Š,ŠŠŠ copies, which, if it sells out, will be more than enough to put Abe through Rhode Is­land School of De­sign, or wher­ever he de­cides to go to col­lege. So who am I to judge? No one. Just a re­main­dered Al­ter­nadad. Maybe, as they say, size doesn’t mat­ter. Maybe, when it comes to writ­ing about father­hood, Chabon re­ally does know best.

Neal Pol­lack is the au­thor of “Not Com­ing Soon to a The­ater Near You” (Lit­tle A, 2016) and a slew of other books.

Where is the poop? Where is the barf and blood?


POWER COU­PLE: Chabon with his wife, au­thor Ayelet Wald­man.

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