After reading Jose Saramago and two Cormac McCarthy Novels I needed a break from the heavy, unconventional styles of these two authors and wanted some lighter fare. Michael Chabon’s Mysteries of Pittsburgh was exactly what I needed. It is a first person coming-of-age book that reads very quickly with a light and breezy pace. It is notable that this was Chabon’s first work (and my first Chabon novel too) and though he wrote it at only 22 years-old it demonstrates a novelist with skill and promise. I definitely look forward to reading more of Chabon in the future.
The action of this particular novel takes place in the summer that its main character, Art Bechstein, finishes his undergraduate degree in economics. He is spending his laissez-faire summer not in New York, not backpacking Europe, but in Pittsburgh: a city that lacks glamor, but for what it lacks, it does carry a certain blue-collar charm that aspires to be something bigger than it really is. The theme of “bigness” runs throughout the novel, with Art aspiring to achieve greater meaning and timelessness to this summer of tomorrow’s nostalgia. Nostalgia is also a recurrent theme, and Art, as the first person narrator telling this story in past tense, often admits that his embellishments upon the past may be exaggerations to achieve the sense of bigness inherent in his nostalgic reflections. Chabon’s work is effective in capturing the hopeful playfulness of post-graduate freedom and this book made me nostalgic for my own post-graduate carefree days when anything seemed possible and simply hanging out with close friends was all that I ever needed.
Reading through the interview with the author tagged onto the end of my copy, I learned that Chabon modeled this book on inspirations from the Great Gatsby, a summer novel in three acts encompassing June, July, and August. Knowing this I have a some criticism for Chabon since the first two acts were so well developed. It seemed that August was stunted, rushed, and although linguistically appealing, dissatisfying for plot progression. Don’t get me wrong, the ending isn’t a total let-down, but for what the ending became I wanted more and it is apparent that a freshman novelist he didn’t quite yet figure out how to match the pace of his climatic ending with the overall progressive pace of the preceding chapters.
There are plenty of coming-of-age stories out there, so to make this book relevant Chabon has offered a unique backstory. Bechstein is the son of a high ranking Jewish Mafia man and one of Art’s friend’s, Cleveland, is low level thug in the Mafia business. The collaboration of Art’s friend with his father’s business provides a back-story narrative to Art’s summer of sexual exploration. The main story centers around Art’s triangle relationship with his girlfriend Phlox and his best-friend Arthur. The novel opens with Art meeting Arthur, a narcissistic homosexual who first pursues Art but later sets him up with Phlox after Art denies his friend Arthur’s initial pursuits. Without revealing the plot I’ll say that things get complicated and I found that Chabon was masterful in delicately approaching his protagonist’s budding questions of love and its limits. It doesn’t feel like a homosexual novel, it just happens to be a novel that includes some homosexual acts, which makes it all the better and more convincing.