Monday, March 29, 2010

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, by Michael Chabon

I first heard about Michael Chabon's writing from his wife while I was on the treadmill at the gym. She was narrating her book, Bad Mother, through my ear pods. Ayelet Waldman's description of her husband's involvement in helping her parent their four children as he churned out novel after novel seemed endearing, if not inspiring. So, off I went to hunt down some Michael Chabon. He won the Pulitzer in 2001 for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. That title was not to be found at the used bookstore, but The Mysteries of Pittsburgh was. It was $2.99. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh was Chabon's first book, written at the age of 21.

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is about Arthur Bechstein as he toys with becoming an adult during a summer break from college. The novel profiles his difficult relationship with his father, who is in the Mafia, and it describes the love he feels for Phlox, who is his girlfriend. As he drenches himself in Phlox's affections, he finds himself questioning his sexuality. The focus of that identity question centers around his friend, who also happens to be named Arthur.

The part of me that is enamored by the talent of the novelist is simply floored at the achievement of this novel written at such a young age. The human part of me wasn't all that enamored. The writing is excellent. The plot is a little eccentric, and because of that, it reminded me of a Quentin Tarantino movie. The story is a fairly accurate portrayal of my generation. The picture was not pretty for me, all laid out there in black and white. Oblivious to the enormity of their self-centeredness, Arthur and his friends live in the present without regard for the past or the future. At the beginning of the novel, Arthur says this:

"I smoked and looked down at the bottom of Pittsburgh for a little while, watching the kids playing tiny baseball, the distant figures of dogs snatching at a little passing car, a miniature housewife on her back porch shaking out a snippet of red rug, and I made a sudden, frightened vow never to become that small, and to devote myself to getting bigger and bigger and bigger."

That vow is made at the beginning of the novel. The vow is not rooted in anything except being momentarily inspired. The inspiration does not propel Arthur to do anything "big". It's that kind of thing that seems to be a repeating theme with my generation; get inspired and then do nothing with the inspiration. Of course, I'm not saying that everyone in my generation fulfills this stereotype, but it's out there. Is this stereotype typical of 22 year olds in all generations? I think not. My grandfather was commanding a World War II Navy ship at that same age. His daughter was financially supporting her husband while he attended college at that same age. His granddaughter (me) was, at 22, not doing anything nearly as magnanimous as commanding a Navy ship or putting someone through college. I might be on to something here. And Michael Chabon might agree with me.

While this wasn't a life-changing, keep-me-up-all-night novel, it fulfilled its purpose. Any time a book causes me to stop and think, it is a good thing. You can be sure that I'll be watching the used bookstore for some more Michael Chabon.

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