Michael Chabon,
The Mysteries of Pittsburgh
(William Morrow & Co., 1988)

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is Michael Chabon, all right. There's the author's superior way with words, the coming of age/sex identification thing and so on. But what's different about this one compared to other Chabon's I've read is this: The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is freakin' simple.

Then again, it's not. At all. Chabon's debut novel is one of those books that on the surface isn't about a whole lot. Dig deeper, and you'll discover healthy chunks of important material.

Here, lead character Art Bechstein describes an intense period of lust and love during one of those uber-critical points in a person's life: the summer after college. He has sex with women (Phlox Lombardi), with men (Arthur Lecomte) and is forced to deal with his outspoken mobster dad. At the same time, he shares a blossoming friendship with destined-to-be-great jewel thief, Cleveland Arning.

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh certainly isn't as polished as any of Chabon's latter novels. Yet the book, oddly, is better than any Chabon I've read to date. (This is No. 4 for me).

It captures Chabon at a time when the scribe was still discovering himself as an accomplished writer. In fact the book, published when Chabon was the ripe old age of 25, was submitted as his thesis for his creative writing MFA at University of California at Irvine. It may be unfussy and uncomfortable, but it works.

I thoroughly enjoyed Art's sex revelations and how he goes about discovering them. His relationship with Arthur is sweet and charming. By the time they start hooking up, you'll surely be thinking, "Well, finally!"

What I didn't quite dig was Art's father's day trade as a skillful mobster. It just didn't fit the story. At all. I get Chabon's point of juxtaposing Art's precarious nature with his dad's more dogmatic viewpoints. Their personalities clash, and that's good. But to make daddy a gangster felt like too big a push. I would have been fine with him being upset with his son's homosexuality. Done.

But this is a rather minor detail for me. The majority of the story (and its main action) is wonderful lit.

review by
Eric Hughes

29 August 2009

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