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Monday, October 20, 2014

Manliness and Manitude (pt 2)* in "Along the Frontage Road" by Michael Chabon

"Along the Frontage Road" first appeared in The New Yorker. Reprinted in Best American Short Stories.

Someone said she wouldn't read a book without females. Dave Wolverton suggests you populate your stories with a maximum of character types to maximize your audience. No doubt that's true, but life happens outside mixed groups, and fiction can get interesting when the focus narrows.

Chabon's story examines this from an angle different than Bigelow and Boal's (scheduled for release 10/21)*. Here the narrator seems less preoccupied by death and violence and yet it's there if buried. Mostly, perhaps to his surprise or chagrin (though his emotional response isn't recorded), the Manly Code of Conduct permeates their consciences--consciously or unconsciously--written differently on each "man" (term used loosely). Another difference is that manliness is on this character's mind, which the more pensive men tend to do.

Again there are spoilers, but it's hard to spoil literary stories.

The story opens with the narrator's family tradition: pumpkin selection for Halloween. So the weight of tradition, of generations hangs heavy on this story. There's a brief allusion to an infant child who died. Another gave this the story's full weight. But I don't read it that way. The story spends it's time on men interacting with men. The death (again, death) plays more of a catalyst's role, a way of bringing the men together. 

The Jewish narrator spots a young black boy bored and irritated that he's been left alone in the muscle car while his dad does manly things in the Bait shop (the narrator turns out to be correct). The boy, in other words, is left out of manly discourse. Note all or the manly things mentioned above. 

Meanwhile, the narrator's son selects his pumpkin. It is small, possibly too small to carve. The narrator is disappointed in his son's selection, agrees with the other boy who walks up to offer his commentary. When the other boy's father arrives, disappointed perhaps that his son would consort with Jews or other men?

I choose to follow a non-race interpretation, but yours may be different (after all, the narrator also quickly judged the other man's manhood, guessing him to be a drug dealer with no apparent evidence that I noticed). Instead, I see this as men disappointed in other men's manliness. That disapproval and perhaps guilt over telling his son what kind of pumpkin he should pick, causes him to attempt to erase what he said about picking a larger pumpkin. The boy should pick his own, say, manliness or pumpkin. The boy chooses both--his own, for the sister he'll never have, and a larger "normal" one for carving.

A "frontage road" is a service road, the one off a main road. According to Merriam-Webster, "frontage" can also mean "the act... of facing a given way," which verifies the different direction all of these men are pointing. Possibly, also "affront" is intended, the causing of offense. If so, these affronts are buried, unstated in each man's sense or orientation of what manliness is.

* * *

My point in examining these two works is to show the potency art can attain by limiting its focus. The same goes for women, of course (or any group). As an editor, I recently tried to vote for a wonderful tale set in an all-girls school. I've selected poems about being a woman from women and asked men to do the same. Crickets chirped. No one took the bait.

This isn't to say that literature has to be purposefully segregated or isolationist group--just that it can make for great art.

Those of us interested in humanity are interested art and life in their various manifestations, not limiting art and life to any one kind of ideological interaction. That said, many solely manly or womanly arts may not be to my taste. So it goes. No one is required to like everything.

Some may only want one type of literature--all men, all women, all mixed, all fantastic, no fantastic. That's fine, but please don't limit others in what they like to read/view/etc. Don't deprive others of art's richness. We live in a world of genetic variety. And don't threaten people's lives or livelihoods because you disagree, either, for that matter. Please. Play nice.

* * *

Aside:  Here was an amusing pair of lines, amusing in how Chabon switches tone:
"Toward the end of the year, however, with a regularity that approximates, in its way, the eternal rolling wheel of the seasons, men appear with trailers, straw bales, fence wire, and a desultory assortment of orange-and-black or red-and-green bunting. First they put up polystyrene human skeletons and battery-operated witches, and then, a few weeks later, string colored lights and evergreen swags."
* The point of reversing the order of the essay is so that they may appear in order later (first to post appears below the following post).

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