A Review of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon

 When a novelist wins a prestigious literary prize like the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, the Pen/Faulkner, it is interesting to glance back at his first novel–first novels, even those praised, so regularly ignored by the public at large–to discover the signs of greatness to be that perhaps one might have missed on first reading. So since Michael Chabon’s latest has garnered him one of the above, a word or two about his 1988 opus, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, may well be instructive. Though it earned much praise from reviewers, Mysteries, like so many first novels ended up in overstock bins with piles of remainders (which by the way is where I chanced upon it). Reading it again with the power of hindsight, one wonders why.
Reviewed by Jack Goodstein

When a novelist wins a prestigious literary prize like the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, the Pen/Faulkner, it is interesting to glance back at his first novel–first novels, even those praised, so regularly ignored by the public at large–to discover the signs of greatness to be that perhaps one might have missed on first reading. So since Michael Chabon’s latest has garnered him one of the above, a word or two about his 1988 opus, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, may well be instructive. Though it earned much praise from reviewers, Mysteries, like so many first novels ended up in overstock bins with piles of remainders (which by the way is where I chanced upon it). Reading it again with the power of hindsight, one wonders why.

Perhaps it was Pittsburgh, not exactly a setting to attract a reader’s attention with its exotic or romantic connotations. Still it is a city Chabon describes with an accurate and loving attention to detail, having spent his undergraduate years, as has his narrator, Art Bechstein, in the University of that city. From the Cloud Factory sitting in a ravine at the entrance to Schenley Park to the incline pulling riders up to the top of Mount Washington to dine finely while overlooking the confluence of the Monongahela and the Allegheny to form the Ohio, from the hot dog eaters in front of the “Dirty – O” to the Lost Neighborhood hidden at the foot of a flight of stairs at the bottom of still another ravine: one after another Chabon evokes these “mysteries of Pittsburgh” as emblematic of the mysteries of plot and character that are central to his work. The Cloud Factory seems to have no purpose but to spew out white clouds of smoke. The Lost Neighborhood seems invisible except from above. Chabon manages to make pedestrian Pittsburgh a magical place.

And it is peopled with magical and exciting people: Arthur Lecomte, suave, gay, a Virgilian guide to a Pittsburgh his namesake has not managed to discover despite four years as a student there; Phlox, a floral fantasy of a female almost too good to be true, and most exciting of the trio, Cleveland (an interesting choice of name considering the animosity that Pittsburghers have for that city only an hour and a half away) the seemingly lovable carefree ne’er do well that every adolescent wishes he could be. These three along with a lesser cast of foreign exchange students, hoodlums, book store clerks and disapproving parents flesh out the Pittsburgh panorama.

If it was Pittsburgh that was off-putting, it was not the Pittsburgh of Chabon’s novel.

Perhaps the novel was perceived as simply another of those adolescent coming of age stories, which no doubt it is. Still if it is, it is a coming of age story that pushes well beyond the cliché. It is the summer after Art Bechstein’s graduation with a degree in economics and it is time for one last fling before taking up the burdens of adulthood: “It’s the beginning of the summer and I’m standing in the lobby of a thousand story grand hotel, where a bank of elevators a mile long and an endless row of monkey attendants in gold braid wait to carry me up, up, up through the suites of mogul, of spies, and of starlets, to rush me straight to the zeppelin mooring at the art deco summit, where they keep the huge dirigible of August tied up and bobbing in the high winds. On the way to the shining needle at the top I will wear a lot of neckties, I will buy five or six works of genius on 45 rpm, and perhaps too many times I will find myself looking at the snapped spine of a lemon wedge at the bottom of a drink. . . .I anticipate a coming season of dilated time and of women all in disarray.” If Art sounds like a fantastical dreamer, that’s because he is.

Though a college graduate, there is much that is juvenile about Art. He finds communication with his father an impossible chore. He feels smugly superior to most people beyond his new found friends. Too often he indulges himself in the solipsism of youth. It is not without reason that one of the books The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is most often compared to is Catcher in the Rye.Holden Caulfield’s adolescent disenchantment with the world around him is mirrored in Art’s rejection of his decidedly non-conventional conventional father and the middle class values of home, dog and woman. The other book often cited is The Great Gatsby. Nick Carraway’s admiration for the dazzling rogue, Jay Gatsby, finds its parallel in Art’s attraction to the magnetic thug, Cleveland Arning. In both there is a kind of childish willingness to allow charismatic personalities to get away with indecent behavior.

The book that came most often to my mind, however, was neither of these, despite these compelling similarities, the book that came most often to my mind was Jane Austen’s Emma. Not that the subject matter is even remotely similar, it’s not. Not that Art is a meddler in other’s lives like Emma, he’s not. The similarity I find intriguing is the shared inability of Art Bechstein and Emma Woodhouse to see the world around them, the people that inhabit it and most of all themselves for what they really are. They are both unreliable interpreters of their surroundings less because they are insensitive or unthinking, but rather because they are blind to themselves, to their own needs and desires. They do not understand the world because they do not understand themselves. In each case their novels become stories of self revelation and discovery. Emma learns humility. She learns that her judgment is flawed.

Art learns something very much akin:

When I remember that dizzy summer, that dull, stupid, lovely, dire summer, it seems that in those days I ate my lunches, smelled another’s skin, noticed a shade of yellow, even simply sat, with greater lust and hopefulness–and that I lusted with greater faith, hoped with greater abandon. The people I loved were celebrities, surrounded by rumor and fanfare; the places I sat with them, movie lots and monuments. 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.

There is a self consciousness about youth, a sense that one is at the center of things, even if one isn’t always the hero of one’s own story. And it is this sense that makes everything then seem so much better than everything now–nostalgia.

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is a remarkable book, first novel, second or even tenth. Perhaps the success of Kavalier and Clay will send some more readers its way, it deserves them.

For more information about The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, visit: The Mysteries of Pittsburgh

About the Reviewer: Jack Goodstein is a professor emeritus at California University of Pennsylvania, where he has taught English for more than thirty years. His work has appeared in scholarly journals such as Critique, Theatre Journal and College English and in literary magazines such as The Maine Review, The Small Pond Magazine of Literature and The Jewish Digest. In 1990 at age 51, he tried his hand at acting, and while he has always loved the theatre from the audience, discovered an unexpected addiction to the stage as a performer. Since then he has appeared in more than sixty plays throughout Pittsburgh and Southwestern Pennsylvania. He has also done film and commercial work. This ultimately led to his attempts at writing for the stage. His one act, Pinochle was given a staged reading at the ATHE conference in Toronto in July of 1999 and was published by the University of Charleston Press. In April 2000, his one act, Poker, was produced by the Pulse Ensemble Theatre in Manhattan as part of their OPAL series. Bride of the Father(2000) and Creative Daydreaming (2001) were produced by the Gallery Players of Park Slope in Brooklyn. Other one acts have had readings or been staged at Far Off Broadway and Northern LightsTheatre in Canada, and New York University and the Cafe Sha Sha in New York. Another of his pieces is on line at http://www.eclectica.org/v6n1/goodstein.html

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