I arrived at Michael Chabon’s debut novel, The Mysteries Of Pittsburgh, backward. I’d read and loved The Adventures Of Kavalier & Clay, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, and a couple of other things, like The Final Solution. I’d even seen the movie version of Pittsburgh, which, apart from a fine Peter Sarsgaard performance as Cleveland, I can’t recommend. In fact, the movie set up all kinds of weird expectations upon which the book never delivered. Where was Art’s doomed affair with his bookstore manager? (The movie calls her Phlox, but she doesn’t bear much resemblance to the book’s Phlox; Mena Suvari isn’t bad, though, and might have made an excellent Phlox in a more faithful adaptation.) When would Art start sleeping with Jane and then turn instead to Cleveland? Who the hell thought Sienna Miller would belong in any version of this book?
So I read this with a distracting double-consciousness, but I still ultimately enjoyed it. I get what everyone means when they complain about Chabon’s fussed-over prose and the way it spotlights the most pretentious corners of the protagonist’s personality. But form and content fit together pretty well, to my eyes. Here’s a first novel that, like so many first novels, doubles as a coming-of-age story. It finds both author and character in search of their own identities, as writer and grown-up, respectively. Sometimes the words flow brilliantly. Other times, they clank like a bowl of ball bearings. Both seem kind of right to me.
The unsure drift also felt right for a story about that hazy moment between early adulthood and the rest of life, usually the last chance to change the path on which you’ve been traveling. Art and his friends all seem in rebellion against what they’re supposed to be doing, whether that means making good on an expertise in economics that gives you no pleasure, affecting mannerisms at odds with your origins, or drifting deeper into alcoholism and criminality despite coming from a “good” home. Nobody here seems to know what he or she wants; everybody has gotten reasonably good at faking it.
True, some of the pieces don’t square. The gangster elements and a finale inspired in equal parts by White Heat and King Kong feel like less-graceful embraces of genre elements than what Chabon does in later works. But as an evocation of a bunch of eventful in-between days set in a place where everyone knows they’ll soon be leaving and no one knows what leaving means, I thought it worked quite well.
That said, I wasn’t able to muster the passion for Pittsburgh that I’d hoped. Some coming-of-age-novels benefit from the distance of time, be they A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man or Catcher In The Rye. Both James Joyce and J.D. Salinger have a deep understanding of their protagonists, but they also have a fraction of distance from them, enough to bring some understanding to bear. Reading Pittsburgh, I can’t sense the same distance or the same understanding. Whatever autobiographical echoes the novel has—and I’m not sure they matter—Chabon’s prose seems to be as deep in the process of figuring out its identity as his protagonist. It serves the novel, but the double-stranded confusion empties out to a finale that feels as inconclusive as the action leading up to it. It isn’t a trick he could pull more than once, and while I don’t know whether Art ever got where he wanted to be, but Chabon should be happy about the writer he became.