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The Mysteries Of Pittsburgh: Donna Bowman's comments

I was in love with The Mysteries Of Pittsburgh. I loved Art Bechstein and his helpless passion for the friends who seem so much cooler, braver, and more accomplished than he. I loved the Canyon and the Cloud Factory and the horrible chain bookstore. I loved Art’s transference of affection from Jane to Phlox to Arthur in a miasma of summer romance that isn’t so much for any person as for the immortality of youth, free of danger or lasting consequence.

And then Cleveland took him for a ride on his motorcyle, and it was suddenly gangsters and guns. And just as suddenly, my love came crashing to the ground.

I freely admit that this may be my problem. I could read about people hanging out aimlessly all day. I relish the delirious back-and-forth of Art’s interior and exterior worlds; whenever he notices something about his friends and role models that sends him reeling from their charisma, I wanted to live in that moment for several pages, not just the one sentence Chabon uses to indicate its fleeting, intense impact. Others might be tapping their fingers impatiently, waiting for something to happen; I could do without any plot at all, as long as I got to accompany Art on his tentative, accidental quest into what for him is high society. (I’m reminded of the irrational attraction Tom feels for debutante society in Metropolitan, and I completely understand the Great Gatsby yearning Chabon has said was an influence.)

So when the plot kicks in—and what a tired plot, at that, a son disappointing his father, done in by a social climber, they-keep-pulling-me-back-in organized crime bullshit—I was crushed. I’m overstating its lameness, no doubt; Ellen doesn’t seem to have been bothered by it at all. It’s probably my own sunstroke delirium, brought on by what I thought the book was, that causes me to reject what it turned out to be. But oh, when the crystalline clarity of the relationships turns suddenly into inchoate disappointment, how I raged against Chabon’s effort, hypocritical I thought, to avoid telling us exactly what emotions came between Art and Phlox, passing it off as an evocative moment rather than a lazy one. Art claims he knows just how he let everyone down, but damned if I could tell, and his claims to certainty came off as empty bravado on the part of the author.

To Ellen’s third question, then, I’m going to come in with a resounding “distracting”—actually, stronger than that; the hollow, perfunctory gangsterism felt like a nightmare deus ex machina, a big something-to-take-place that would give Chabon a way to kill off the summer and jolt Art out of his immaturity and move him along to the lost-golden-age regret that tinges his narration throughout—a transition that I didn’t think needed to be explained or motivated, so universal is the feeling. If you’ve been reading along with Wrapped Up In Books from the beginning, you know I’m remorselessly boosterish when it comes to the literature we’ve been reading. I love unashamedly and without reservation whatever moves me. So does it reveal more about me than about the novel that The Mysteries Of Pittsburgh stole my heart, then smashed it into a million little pieces?