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Chabons luminous 1988 coming-of-age novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, was one of the auspicious
literary debuts of the last dozen or so years. Written in an assured and full-throated
lyrical voice, the book began life as an MFA thesis and was published to critical acclaim
and bestsellerdom when Chabon was only 24 years old. He then spent the next five years
assiduously working on an epic second novel titled Fountain City. After completing
some 1,500 pages, he came to the realization that the book was going nowhere at all, and
he regretfully abandoned it. As devastating as the loss of five years work must have
been for Chabon, we can be thankful that the experience led him to write - in a mere
matter of months - the enchanting book that became his "official" second novel, Wonder Boys, published in 1995.
Perhaps its no small coincidence that Grady Tripp, the narrator and protagonist of Wonder Boys, is a novelist with a chaotic unfinished manuscript of 2,611 pages. Tripp, however, is a generation older than Chabon (who was 31 when Wonder Boys was published) and still has one foot in the 1960s and one hand on an ever-present "fatty" of marijuana. He teaches fiction writing at a Pittsburgh college. Seven years ago, Grady Tripp wrote a successful novel that won a PEN award. Since that time, his life and art have somehow managed to spiral beyond his perceived control. Tripp describes his appearance glimpsed in a barroom mirror: "an overweight, hobbled, bespectacled, aging, lank-haired, stoop-shouldered Sasquatch, his furry eye sockets dim, his gait unsteady..."
The narrative that Tripp relates for us is a series of steadily mounting crises that force him for the first time in years to confront the dissipation that has overtaken his mind and body. On the eve of a college-sponsored writers and publishers weekend known as WordFest, Tripps wife walks out on him, and he learns that his mistress, Sara Gaskell - who also happens to be the chancellor of the college - is pregnant with his child. Adding comic insult to injury, Tripp finds himself partnered in crime with one of his students, a macabre and suicidal young man named James Leer, who has shot and killed the chancellors dog and stolen her husbands prized Marilyn Monroe collectible, a jacket worn by the starlet on her wedding day to Joe DiMaggio.
Marilyn Monroes jacket ends up in Leers knapsack, and the dogs corpse ends up in Tripps automobile trunk, along with a tuba belonging to a transvestite who has arrived in town with Tripps eccentric friend and editor, Terry Crabtree. Still later, Tripp will accidentally drive over a nine-foot boa constrictor belonging to his in-laws. The boas carcass, too, will be added to the trunk. In a climactic moment, Tripp will deploy the dead boa like Indiana Joness bullwhip and disarm a pistol-packing gangster.
The foregoing inelegant synopsis highlights the fact that Michael Chabon is not afraid of rude and outsized slapstick comedy. What the synopsis doesnt convey is Chabons poetic voice, his literary gift that transforms Wonder Boys into an intoxicating love affair with the English language. Here, for example, is Tripps description of the greenhouse behind Sara Gaskells home:
I smelled potting soil and freesias, basil and rainwater, rotten wood, rubber hoses, moss, and a faint chlorine tang like an indoor pool. A thousand plants stretched out into all four arms of the greenhouse, spread across low benches, in orderly rows, sporting all manner of fronds, tendrils, and bracts, from cacti and miniature roses in pots to boxes full of tiny seedlings to a big round gardenia in a Mexican urn. The back part of the greenhouse was hung with fluorescent lights that cast their wide spectra over planters filled with zinnia, alyssum, phlox, and over a box of sweet pea vines that Sara had trained to climb through the empty mullions of a salvaged French door. In the central atrium, in a terra-cotta pot the size of a Volkswagen Beetle, stood a six-foot date palm, and beside it a worn purple davenport crowned with a bunch of carved grapes.
This hothouse teeming with vegetation
thrives in the midst of a Pittsburgh winter. Similarly, a prospective newborn life
blossoms in the warmth of Sara Gaskells womb. Chabon doesnt overplay this
thematic metaphor, yet as Grady Tripp extravagantly renders for us the sights and smells
of Saras greenhouse, we can sense the salvation that Sara represents for him. At the
same time, we are made aware that language is itself a rejuvenating force for Grady Tripp
in his journey toward rebirth as a novelist.
Chabon is the most reverent of irreverent comic writers. Even casual readers should recognize the biblical allusions to the sensuous "Song of Solomon" in the greenhouse description. On a more overt note, Chabons novel includes a long set-piece - nearly 30 pages - that depicts a lovingly detailed Passover Seder dinner at the home of Grady Tripps Jewish in-laws. Never mind that Tripp is a lapsed Protestant, or that his marriage is in the process of going to hell, the ancient traditions are for the moment observed and a semblance of spiritual grace seems to touch these precarious lives, including the lost soul of young James Leer.
Wonder Boys is eloquent on the subject of writers losing their way, of the creative process turning sour and self-destructive. Tripp has come to think of writing as the "midnight disease," a kind of ghostly insomnia that afflicts authors too long immersed in the solitude necessary for their work. Several characters in Chabons novel share a fascination with a mythical author named August Van Zorn, a writer of pulp horror stories who eventually put a bullet through his head when the market for his lurid stories began to dry up. (Chabon has gone as far as to pen a sly and creepy horror story under Van Zorns name, which is included in Chabons 1999 short story collection, Werewolves in Their Youth.) Then there is a young writer like James Leer, who is so determined to court darkness that he can find it anywhere, even in the films of Frank Capra, whose name Leer has carved into the flesh of his hand with a needle. Leer will discover a measure of redemption in a book contract and a homosexual fling, both proffered by Tripps lascivious editor, Terry Crabtree.
If Wonder Boys lacks the lean precision of Philip Roths The Ghost Writer, or the intellectual pedigree of Saul Bellows Humbolts Gift, it is certainly the equal of John Irvings antic and brilliant The World According to Garp. Like Garp, Chabons novel risks both silliness and sentimentality, and succeeds as a manic celebration of the American literary spirit.
- Bob Wake