Ah, Michael Chabon. I know you from all the books of yours I haven’t read, which my friends who’ve book-talked them to me have either loved or hated. The one that’s appeal to me the most, as others have talked about your books has been The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, which I distinctly remember my friend Marissa reading and book-talking for a class we had together, the year we met. But mostly, I haven’t wanted to read your books. They’re kinda hefty, for the most part, and the plot summaries (and book talks) haven’t especially moved me. That’s okay. You’re not alone in this, and that also says more about my taste in books right now than it does about your writing.
I share this, because I want you (people reading this review — and Michael Chabon too, if he googles his name (don’t we all?) and comes across this post at some point in the future) to know that I came into reading The Astonishing Secret of Awesome Man (2011, illustrated by Jake Parker) without knowing much about Chabon’s writing style. I picked up the book, because of Chabon’s name, and because of the classic superhero-y illustration that graced the cover. It’s bright, but also reminiscent of the artwork of comics (which, I admittedly don’t read).
The premise of this book is that a boy imagines himself a superhero (I think we can safely assume he’s a superhero fan?). But not a boy superhero (a la certain character in The Incredibles) — he’s a man. He does all sorts of things to the evil villains, which winds up reading more like a checklist:
- Positronic rays shot from the eyeballs? Check.
- Fly straight as an arrow? Check.
- Speed through the time barrier? Check.
- Be a white man and save the community from all sorts of evil? Check and Check.
than a story in its own right. Of course, as we read through the story we don’t know that the boy is a boy — subtle hints are left through the text and illustrations (especially when Awesome Man almost slips and says ‘mom’ or when at his Fortress of Awesome, we see him sitting on a child’s bed). While this might make for a fun guessing game for a younger child, my interpretation was: “Well, this is awkward and unengaging. Where’s the narrative hook? Am I supposed to care that much about Awesome Man’s secret?”
Fortunately, the illustrations are bright. I like bright things.
To a point.
By the time it is finally revealed that Awesome Man is, in fact, a boy, I was bored. In addition, I was frustrated. Awesome Man has anger management issues (we don’t want to see him upset, because it’s not pretty — does that sound like abuse or at least the potential for it, and also like perhaps we need to walk on eggshells around Awesome Man?), and these are never addressed.
An easy interpretation would be that we should see the boy’s imagination as a way of escaping (empowering him to temporarily take control of) whatever real struggles he’s facing. That’s fair.
But we’re also seeing a boy who sees superpowers as the only way of overcoming whatever those real (mostly unnamed, except for possibly a strong hatred for green jello?) struggles are. Without superpowers, as just a normal boy, he’s helpless to protect himself. This is typical of so many childhoods, and is perhaps the reason the boy imagines himself as Awesome Man rather than boy. So that, as a man instead of a child, he’ll have agency over his own life.
This book ends with a very specific image of Awesome Man revealing his secret identity as a boy, and walking in the door of his home to his mother (of course! Who else would be home to take care of a child??) who has a plate of cheddar cheese and chocolate milk for him (shudder! So much dairy!). I’m not sure why Chabon selected this as Awesome Man’s snack, but the specific description of so much dairy seems intentional and makes me uneasy for reasons I haven’t yet identified.
Would I recommend this book to children in my life? Probably not. If those children want to read books about superheroes, I’ll gladly point them in the direction of other superheroes, and graphic novels (in general). But, if I was speaking to someone who wanted to create a retro-looking comic? I’d probably at least mention this book, in a list of others.