Michael Chabon,
Wonder Boys
(Villard, 1995)

Unlike The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and The Yiddish Policemen's Union, both of which are acclaimed novels by Michael Chabon, Wonder Boys is neither epic -- that title assuredly belongs to the 600-plus page behemoth Kavalier & Clay -- nor does it forcibly strangle its readers along for a twist-infested storyline that is bursting at the seams with countless, colorful characters -- that, of course, would be The Yiddish Policemen's Union.

Instead, Wonder Boys, Chabon's second novel published in 1995, is much more gentle and sedate. Taking place over the course of a single weekend, certainly not over months or even decades as I was used to in Chabon's more recent work, Wonder Boys is Chabon exploring the personal demons of a college professor and what he can do to soothe his misfortunes. And as simple as that may sound, when combined with the masterful storytelling I have come to expect from Chabon, I very much approve of the finished product.

Wonder Boys stars Grady Tripp, a professor who lives in Pittsburgh and author of several novels. His newest manuscript, Wonder Boys, is already a huge 2,611 pages, and Grady shows no signs of slowing down. To make matters worse, his editor is in town for the weekend and has heard from Grady that he is "almost finished" for several years now. Moreover, Grady's wife walks out on him, and his mistress and chancellor of the college, Sara Gaskell, tells Grady she is pregnant with his baby. Finally, one of Grady's star students, James Leer, nearly commits suicide at a weekend party that Grady also attends, leading Grady to act as a parental figure for James over the ensuing few days. These issues and more fit tightly under Chabon's radar for the remainder of the story, fitting the bill for an exciting ride through the complicated life of Grady Tripp.

What I find most interesting about Grady's character is that he is one I shouldn't have liked. He has children out of wedlock, cheats on his wife, smokes pot to rid himself of difficulties and would seem to be in favor of avoiding confrontation altogether rather than settling something outright. But for all this negativity set up by Chabon, I still found the man quite charming. He's funny, he's smart, he knows how to butter up the in-laws and surprisingly -- at least for me -- he becomes a hell of a good role model for troubled James as the novel runs its course. For all his misgivings, Grady also has a lot to be thankful for -- personality-wise -- which only strengthened my interest in seeing the man overcome his personal difficulties.

Used to the Chabon that lets his stories run their course over longer periods of time in a single, thick novel, I was pleasantly amazed, really, that he also has a knack for penning stories with an expiration date of only a few days. Much explodes in Grady's face at the onset, and yet the gifted author finds ways to quickly rebuild his tarnished image, without it at any time seeming too unplausible to believe. For this, Wonder Boys is certainly my favorite of the young Michael Chabon, and I look forward to seeing what else he has in store for readers in his next release.

review by
Eric Hughes

20 September 2008

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