This was Michael Chabon’s first published novel but I had oddly never read this before. Chabon wrote this when he was about the same age as the protagonist and his group of summer friends. His youth shows but it is an asset in that it informs the characters in a very different way than if he’d written as a more mature person trying to create a younger feel. I actually backdoored into this particular book having first seen the movie version a couple years ago. (Strange casting and, as I found reading, a real garbling of the story.) I don’t know how often people see a movie, particularly a poor adaptation, and decide to read the source material.
The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (let’s call it TMOP for short) really took me back to my youth for a couple reasons. It was set in the late 70’s / early 80’s – my college years exactly. It dealt with vague disaffection – check…weren’t we all vaguely disaffected? It was set in Pittsburgh – close…I lived (and still do) about 45 minutes from Downtown and spent a great deal of time seeking “entertainment” there back in those days (still do). Anyway, the classic Bildungsroman of young Art Bechstein in TMOP pulled me in.
The story takes place over a few summer months at the end of Art’s college years. He’s taking the summer to just chill and get over a recently ended relationship before he has to start a career to comply with his father’s wishes that his son become a respectable member of society rather than a gangster, which is his father’s line of work. Near the end of Art’s last Spring term, he is befriended at the library by Arthur Lecomte (Too many Arts? Perhaps.), who turns out to be Art’s gay alter-ego (they’re both trying to put some distance between themselves and their backgrounds). Arthur works at the library, takes an interest in Art and provides a connection to Phlox, a quirky young woman who also works there and who becomes involved with Art. He also introduces Art to Jane, a southerner living in Pittsburgh who may be the girlfriend of Arthur’s mysterious boyhood friend, Cleveland, who Art also eventually meets. The friendships and entanglements of the five ebb and flow throughout a languid summer until the trajectories they are all on fly out of any of their control. The events and episodes over the corse of the summer are a reflection of the pasts that they are all trying to escape. It’s an impressive work for a young writer. Vaguely underdeveloped in spots, but very relatable. I have to say that I genuinely knew people like all of these characters and they behave in very understandable and, at times, infuriating ways. At the core, this is Art’s story, it’s his POV, it’s his pilgrimage into adulthood.
I recommend this one, with a warning that there are parts that some readers may find disturbing (violence, sexual behavior, college aged assholishness).