Early in “The Opposite of Writing,” the introduction to this winning collection of occasional pieces, Michael Chabon recounts a conversation he had with an author “at a literary party the summer before my first novel was published.” That author tells Chabon the key to being a successful writer: “You can write great books. Or you can have kids. It’s up to you.”
Since that time Chabon has turned out 14 books. Most are novels or collections or short stories. Most recently, “Moonglow” (2016) fuses two novels into one man’s story: a grandson’s story of his grandfather’s story. And there’s the Pulitzer Prize in 2000 for the unforgettable “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.”
There have been books for children, books like “Summerland,” and there have been “primers” on fatherhood, primers like “Manhood for Amateurs” and his completely winning new volume, “Pops.”
Luckily, Chabon did not heed the advice of “the great man,” the writer he met at that party. A successful marriage, four children and 14 books. Not a bad balancing act for the past quarter-decade.
“Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces” is comprised of seven “pieces” plus an introduction. The majority of the works are versions of columns Chabon wrote monthly for the now-defunct magazine Details. One is a justly famous longer article about his younger son Abe from an issue of GQ.
“Little Man” appeared first in that magazine under the title “My Son, the Prince of Fashion.” As a bar mitzvah gift, Abraham Chabon accompanied his father (who refers to himself as his son’s “minder”) to cover Paris Fashion Week. The indifference of Abe’s minder to fashion (“thrift-shopping for vintage Western shirts and Hermès ties”) becomes a philosophical counterbalance to Abe’s interest in style (“Abe was just a kid who loved clothes”). This exquisite comic essay, in the final analysis, morphs into a loving tribute to Abe, and it is bursting with a father’s wonderment at his son’s tenacity in finding “company in the solitude of his passion.”
“Adventures in Euphemism” is about the enchanting help Chabon’s two younger children provide in finding the logical and incontrovertible substitution for Mark Twain’s word choice in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” “The Old Ball Game” is a tale about how watching baseball on television becomes not a chore but something to be shared — perhaps with a daughter.
In “The Bubble People,” Chabon explains to one of his daughters how “her own freakazoid nature” might possibly link her to many others. “Be Cool or Be Cast Out” is about “the perfection of conformity” that is craved by middle schoolers even as they attempt “to fashion a self from the lump of contradictory impulses and emotions and paradigms that your mind and your culture presented.” “Against Dickitude” is Chabon’s attempt to make his older son and himself “feel the proper horror of the power you have to break someone.”
In “Pops,” Chabon the father examines himself as Chabon the son. He poignantly remembers his pediatrician father, understanding that “the territory of our father-and-sonhood is shadowed by the usual anger, disappointment, and failure strewn with the bones of old promises and lies.” Placed last in the collection, it is a genuinely moving complement to “Little Man.”
“Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces” is a small book with a substantial soul. It’s the sort of book to keep nearby, especially when we are in need of a spirit as generous as Michael Chabon’s.
Steven Whitton is a retired professor of English.