“No doubt all of this is not true remembrance but the ruinous work of nostalgia, which obliterates the past, and no doubt, as usual, I have exaggerated everything.”
The ordinary man—often the ordinary boy—discovers his powers, or is handed them in an accident. He must learn to trust them, but he can only do so through use, and with use comes danger. As an author who devoted an entire novel to a pair of early superhero-comic creators, Michael Chabon can probably find a lot of flaws in my argument that every writer has, like a superhero, an origin story unique unto himself. But Chabon’s surely centers around the publication of his first novel, 1989’s The Mysteries Of Pittsburgh. Tracing the path of a young college graduate trying to “hold aloft the enchanted flag of summer” and forget, briefly, the rest of his life, the novel was published when Chabon was just 25, and it became a bestseller; in a comment on the peril of early fame, reviewer Alice McDermott called it “full of all of the delights, and not a few of the disappointments, inherent in any early work of serious fiction.” (The critic giveth and the critic taken away.)
When I first finished The Mysteries Of Pittsburgh, I already knew that Chabon had negotiated his way out of the sudden fame that a first book can bring to an untested writer. I had tried to read it before, soon after my own graduation, but I put it down somewhere during the scene at Riri’s party, finding the narrator annoying and inconsistent. My own nostalgia has blunted my edges since then, but the tremolo at which Art Bechstein attempts to live, vibrating among the definitions of himself, might have also resonated with me then as it does now, were I able to sense that it plays within an lower octave and doesn’t stretch for the same intervals as the novels that followed.
True, the element of emotional risk I like about all of Chabon’s books is laid barer in The Mysteries Of Pittsburgh, where it doesn’t so much as lurk around the corner of every adventure as surround protagonist Art Bechstein like a weather system. Writing in the Wall Street Journal a few weeks ago, Time critic (and current bestselling author) Lev Grossman singled out Chabon among a list of authors who are “waking [the novel] up from its 100-year carbonite nap” by infusing their prose with the action the classic literary novel lacks, but that statement devalues the artistry of being able to meld the two. At times, The Mysteries Of Pittsburgh seems to even shrink from such deliberate action, as when Art witnesses a brawl outside his college library; when the police show up, he deliberately turns away before the arrest to make contact with a man who earlier eyed him over a Spanish paperback. In Chabon’s 2004 novel The Final Solution—a work which bears all the author’s trademarks in miniature, like Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach—a man who has agreed to give his neighbor a ride to London to look for a missing parrot, only to find the rare-bird dealer closed, ruefully compares his minor and major disappointments in life to the just-passed Blitz. It’s a ludicrous comparison on its face, but Chabon stitches up the edges so tightly as to make it a profundity on war and the unerring forward tide of human life. He brings you suddenly to the lip of a cliff when you aren’t expecting it, then delivers you to safety.
At the same time, The Mysteries Of Pittsburgh is not perfect, although its flaws make for fascinating study. When this kind of sensibility is applied to a creature who tends toward the dramatic anyway, the 22-year-old graduate on the cusp of his new life, the result can be slightly overpowering, and its emotional fault lines run straight through its protagonist. Art’s powers of observation often fail him, but nowhere is his befuddlement more pronounced than in his romantic unraveling. His father floats in and out of the book like an underdeveloped storm system that never seems to break; in attempting to balance a summer-of-love plot with a knottier, long-buried skein that is the relationship between Art and his mafia-attached dad, the book frequently crashes into implausibility, particularly in any scene where the mysterious mobsters of Pittsburgh are sitting around in a restaurant, Goodfellas-style, waiting for someone else to show up. At one point, in a sidebar, Art indirectly accuses his sometime lover Phlox of memorizing references to drop into conversation to cover for her lack of a sense of humor. At the same time, he can’t see his own tendency toward inorganic groaners like “Good thing this isn’t a Sergio Leone movie.”
Yet the book has stayed with me anyway, not as my favorite Chabon—I’m currently vacillating between The Yiddish Policemen’s Union and Wonder Boys—but more than earning its place as the first in a series of explorations of genre through the medium of the serious literary novel. Later Chabon books tackle comics, alternate history, and the detective story, but he began with the bildungsroman: Done well, it looks effortless and is not noted; done poorly, it shames youth and the world it comes from. Art Bechstein is often blissfully unaware of his own pretensions, but the sadness that comes with knowing gets him in the end, too. There were scenes I cringed to read this time around, which once I might have found touching, but Art’s Pittsburgh, like Philip Carey’s Paris or Stephen Dedalus’ Dublin, is a place I appreciated visiting.
Some questions for my fellow readers to consider:
• The book places itself with the title, and Art continues to be obsessed with place and surroundings, from the basement of the Bellwethers’ family home where Happy the neurotic dog lives to the house Cleveland is casing in his last “job.” How did that work on you as a reader? Did it leave you feeling more or less grounded in Art’s perspective?
• The Mysteries Of Pittsburgh is a novel of seduction on several planes; Art describes his friends as “celebrities, surrounded by rumor and fanfare” and himself as worshiping at their altar, continually trying to prove worthy of their various loves. But who is doing the seducing? Romantically, Art becomes involved with both Arthur and Phlox over the course of the book, but he’s almost more intimate with Cleveland, with whom he becomes nearly besotted. How did you figure Art’s emotional unreliability?
(Incidentally, if you cheated and rented this year’s movie adaptation of the book, you’re already confused, since it edited Art’s group of friends down to two who are called Jane and Cleveland, but serve the functions of Phlox and Arthur from the book. If you haven’t watched it, don’t bother.)
• What do you make of Art’s relationship with his dad, which occasionally seems like the leftovers from a much larger book? The tossed-off description from the book’s very first line, “my father, the gangster,” is practically the closest we get to finding out what he actually does, yet his approval weighs heavily on Art. Was it a necessary counterweight, or did you find it distracting?
• I’m going to break A.V. Club code and admit to having read the “About the book” section in my paperback copy (just this once, I swear! Owww!), in which Chabon particularly mentions two acknowledged masterworks of American literature that inspired him in the years that he was writing The Mysteries Of Pittsburgh: The Great Gatsby and Goodbye, Columbus. Have at it, guys: Is Bechstein more Fitzgeraldian or Rothish? And does it matter? Should I even have brought it up? (Well, it’s a bit late to ask that now.)