Monday, 11 January 2016

Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon


It has taken me a while to get to writing this review. I read The Mysteries Of Pittsburgh over Christmas, sitting in front of the fireplace at my in-laws, with a little book nest beside me and snuggled up with the new teddy bear my husband got me, whom I have named Sasquatch. (He has Big Feet.) It was pretty much the ideal place to sit and read for a while, taking a break both from work and my dissertation.

The only other Michael Chabon book I have read is The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, but that was enough to put him on my radar in a big way. In picking up this book, I was going back to his very early work, a coming-of-age-in-a-hot-summer tale of sexuality and transgression.

There's an interesting thing going on here with the prose. It's flowery at times - indeed, my husband picked the book up and read the first couple of pages and wrinkled his nose at it. However, Chabon has a neat knack for both having those flowery passages and then undercutting them with an offside observation that both points out and gently mocks the overwritten passages. It made me laugh out loud at least a couple of times.

The main character, Art, is working in Pittsburgh after finishing college (I think he's finished? Perhaps between years.) He's avoiding his father's world, or maybe his father wants to keep him out of it, or both. His father, it is gradually revealed, is rather more involved in organized crime than not. Over the summer, which exists in kind of a liminal space of working at bookshops, haunting the campus and hanging out with friends, Art does not so much discover who he is as discover how complicated a question that is.

Witnessing a fight over a young woman, he strikes up a conversation with Arthur (and how rare is it for two characters in fiction to have the same first name?) Lecomte, a young gay may who works at the campus library. Arthur is from Pittsburgh, in the midst of several on-again, off-again relationships, and makes his interest in Art as more than just a friend clear.It is initially something Art tries to ignore, as he wants the friendship without the attachment or the sex. Arthur brings along a suite of other friends, including a biker named Cleveland. Cleveland went to school with Arthur, has a tempestuous relationship with his girlfriend, and is a walking cloud of charismatic bad influence.

And then of course, there's Phlox, a young woman who also works at the library, dislikes what she sees as Arthur's choice of homosexuality, dresses as though she's trying on a different image every week, and wants to date Art.

Art drifts through his summer, intersecting with all these people, but in the end, oscillating between Phlox and Arthur, both of whom have hooks in him. He's occasionally pulled headlong by Cleveland into interactions with his father's world, even though he never really wanted to see it.

In the end The Mysteries of Pittsburgh isn't anywhere as good as The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, but isn't that what we want to see from authors? That they grow and develop? There's certainly enough here to make it worth a read, although it's not a classic.

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