I’m a fan, but I still haven’t read the best known books. His Wonder Boys sold well and was turned into a box office success with Michael Douglas and Tobey Maguire at the wheel, and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay won the Pulitzer Prize for Michael Chabon. Yes, and there was The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, too, which won the double-crown of speculative fiction, the Hugo and Nebula awards. My first awareness of him might have come in buying a hardcover version – on clear-out from Books on Beechwood, a great little Ottawa bookstore – of his young adult novel Summerland, which had a superbly whimsical dust jacket to go along with its super-nifty title. (Mini-review: if you like any two of children, baseball, goodness, and fantasy-without-swords-or-dragons, you’ll like Summerland. Three or more? Home run. I went four for four.) Then came what made me a Chabon fan, the marvellous non-fiction of Manhood for Amateurs, but that’s not the subject of this review, either. (Real quick? Men who can read, should. He thinks heartily about many things needful for males. Funny, too.)  He’s good, alright.

I write, though, of Chabon’s first novel, published when he was 24, started before and completed during his M.F.A. tour of writing duty In California. Famously, his instructor found an agent and submitted Chabon’s manuscript for publication without his knowledge; its six-figure advance and subsequent high sales left Chabon as disoriented as his novel’s protagonist. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (another cool title) is easy to slot as a young man’s coming-of-age novel, charting one event-poor but emotionally tangled summer. Art Bechstein is the narrator. He has just graduated from a Pittsburgh university (probably Carnegie-Mellon) with a degree, but little apparent interest, in Economics. His mother is dead, suddenly and mysteriously gone just before his 13th birthday. His father is unmentionable though omnipresent, a soft-spoken but powerful gangster of whom Art is both ashamed and in awe, and whom he chronically disappoints. He finds out what his father does for a living on his bar mitzvah. Early in the novel, Art summarizes his life: “My first thirteen years, years of ecstatic, uncomfortable and speechless curiosity, followed by six months  of disaster and disappointment, convinced me somehow that every new friend came equipped with a terrific secret, which one day, deliberately, he would reveal; I need only maintain a discreet, adoring, and fearful silence.” And he does. And they do. He is silent, or distractable, or dissembling at every point where opening a door to truth presents itself, but he eventually stumbles into some of the mysteries. If all was clear, I suppose, that would make a lie of the title.

Among the several relationship triads of which Art finds himself an obtuse angle, Cleveland Arning shares this one with the narrator and his Dad. Cleveland comes from money, but is reckless, irresponsible, chronically drunk and, though roughly the same age, he is more paternally present to Art than is his father. Cleveland is a vivid, frustrating character, nearly as perplexing and more mysterious than the one telling the story. He is a dominating, legendary figure in Art’s mind (and, periodically, in his presence), and the novel veers into an utterly higher plot gear in the book’s last quarter, when Cleveland takes alarming action. For much of the novel, he is mainly a haunting absence as Art lunges malleably into another, in some ways more traditional triangle, with two university library employees: the handsome young Arthur Lecomte (“my friends call me Arthur”) and the fragrant and sweetly odd Phlox. The pursuits (determined or dallying), evasions (devious and indirect) and convergences (doomed, indiscreet) among Art, Phlox and Arthur form the majority of the rather languid plot. Will he? Will they? Can she?

I was surprised to find The Mysteries of Pittsburgh disturbing. I got a little depressed reading it, I think. We are naturally sympathetic towards Art, though he is nearly always on the verge of helpless tears, and maddeningly baffled by the slightest emotional gust. Arthur flits about cleverly on the surface of every conversation (and the exchanges are carelessly brilliant, though they often don’t mean much). Phlox is in Stage Current of what has apparently been a revolving door of different personas, causes and fashion statements, while Cleveland is unchangingly self-destructive. There is awesome stupidity among these awfully smart kids, and maybe I’m too much the TeacherDadCoach not to have that wear me down after a while.

After so much indeterminancy, lethargy and mis- or un-directed yearnings – and those conversations, witty and sardonic but oh, so pointless – there was real relief when the relationships began to rattle and hum and the plot to bubble, even though the destination seemed sure to be downhill from the where the summer began. The novel is filled with quiet but amply medicated desperation: “strangled ashtrays”, frantic parties, sexual adventuring, co-dependant relationships and enough beer to turn Pittsburgh’s famous three rivers yellowish brown (if they hadn’t already been that colour in the still-steel-making seventies). Emotional urgency – it is legion – is muted by fear, booze and indecision. I never stopped caring about the characters, but certainly wanted to give them a shake.

It’s a hard novel to love, but not to admire. Even in his 20s, Chabon was a word wizard, and I can forgive a lot of things if a writer can sling phrases like he does. The characters are never quite so funny as their friends think, but they are bright. For all his weepy meandering, Art is a cunning observer. He spends the summer working at a soulless bookstore that “was organized as though the management had hoped to sell luncheon meat or lawn-care products but had somehow been tricked by an unscrupulous wholesaler….As far as they were concerned, a good book was still a plump little paperback that knew how to sit in a beach bag and keep its dirty mouth shut.” Here is Art on his first (very formal) introduction, by Arthur, to Phlox, the “Girl Behind Bars” in a remote work station of the campus library:

She wore, today, several layers of red and white, T-shirts mostly, with a skirt here or there, and many different kerchiefs and bracelets….Her eyes…were the bluest I had ever seen, and they widened at the sight of me…. [S]he was unquestionably beautiful, and yet there was something wrong, about her looks, her clothing…. It was as though she had studied American notions of beauty from some great distance and had come all this way only to find she had overdone the details: a debutante from another planet.

Their first meeting is deliciously awkward (which may be Arthur’s twisted intention), and “suddenly, under the weight of her regard and of Arthur’s overintroduction, I felt compelled to impress her but no longer wanted to – I wanted to back up the hallway, put on a pair of black horn-rims and a heavy coat, and come out again, this time farting and seized by grotesque tics.” Clever, clever boys.

The book is filled with tasty descriptions and knowing insights like these, and for me it was mainly enough to make up for a dreary and inevitable plot — inevitable, that is, until Cleveland raises the stakes of his self-destruction — and characters drowning, however charmingly, in self-absorption. It is a character-driven novel, though, and while they are hard to love, they seem real. And perhaps the book didn’t depress me as much as my reading darkened it.1 Chabon is a superb sentence-maker and generator of feelings, even in this youthful effort whose polish and conviction stir a vigorous little brew of envy in more writers, I’m sure, than just me. Now I want to read it again, and I look forward to more fiction, not to mention his non-fiction Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands. Hmm. Borderlands. If Michael Chabon is leading the exploration, I’m keen to be crew.

1 I’ve never read a review who acknowledged this: how much we are affected in our embrace and enjoyment of a book (movie, restaurant, recording, play, lover) by the vagaries of our own moods. It seems to me that reviewers should be less imperial in their pronouncements, perhaps adding grace notes like but maybe that was just the Prozac talking or I used to like this sort of thing before the divorce or maybe something as blood simple as listen, talk to me again next week, I may have changed my mind.

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