The Mysteries of Pittsburgh
Michael Chabon’s first novel, started at the age of 21 (this makes me feel so old 😀 ) is not, and does not aim to be, a great novel, but it definitely is an entertaining summer read. It all takes place in a hot fiery Pittsburgh summer, and the temperatures outside really help set the atmosphere – you can smell the burning asphalt 😉 Plot-wise it’s quite straightforward: Art Bechstein’s summer holiday bounces between his new found friends Arthur and Cleveland, his new girlfriend Phlox, his visiting father and his newly discovered bisexuality (props to Chabon for the weird & unlikely names per no. of characters ratio 😀 ). Art meets Arthur (Lecomte) after a visit in the public library and is instantly drawn into his world by his politeness and outdated mannerisms. This world includes Cleveland, his oldest friend – a man with a really messed up life (dead mother, gay father, on/off girlfriend, drinking – the works) to whom he takes quite a liking. He is immediately accepted in their circle, starts dating Phlox (the standard quirky girl) and all goes rather well for a short while – before confusion breaks on all fronts. He will quickly be involved in Cleveland’s “job” (he is a henchman for the local mafia) while finding himself more and more attracted to Arthur (with whom he eventually starts a relationship, proving that his adolescence suspicion that he was gay wasn’t exactly far off). And if you put head mobster Bechstein senior in the mix – you can pretty much guess nothing good will come out of it. The ending is not that suspenseful, but I wouldn’t want to give it away 😉
My only complaint (aside from the needless attention grabbing names) is that the characters are a bit of a sketchy cliché; still every once in a while you get a glimpse of real life:
As a child, coming home at sunset through the infinite chain of backyards that led from the school-yard to our house, I would catch glimpses in windows of dining rooms, tables set for supper; of crayon drawings tacked to the refrigerator; of feet on low hassocks, framed photographs and empty sofas, all lit by the bland light of the television; and these quickly shifting tableaux of strange furniture and the lives and families they divulged would send me into a trance of curiosity.
It’s not often that I find myself in a fragment of a book – I lead a too ordinary life for that – but this particular phrase really spoke to me and my own memories. (Not that I stare in people’s apartments, but, when on a bus, I occasionally take a peek into other lives and start to wonder how they unravel.)
Last year a movie came out, I haven’t seen it, nor do I intend to, and from what I gather it’s not worth the time (if you want to see a movie based on a Chabon novel – go see Wonder Boys. Personally, I loved it 😀 ). Looking through the distribution, I think that the story of Cleveland & Jane (the on/off girlfriend, to whom only a couple of pages are dedicated in the book) takes centerstage, completely eliminating Arthur Lecomte (he’s not even listed as a character). And while I get that a mobsters make a more compelling medium than sexual confusion and murky sentiments, I think this approach robs the story of some of its best bits.