It’s Gatsby meets Less Than Zero…
I might be offending author Michael Chabon by comparing his debut novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, to some of the early work of Brett Easton Ellis (Less Than Zero was published only a few years before Mysteries but I guess four years is a long time in the world of publishing).
Anyway, think of the male friendship dynamic that was going on in Gatsby and add a layer of eighties Brat Pack. For good measure add a furore over the gay themes in the book. And let’s not forget Chabon went on to win a Pulitzer Prize (so he clearly knows what he’s doing).
It’s the story of Art Bechstein, the son of a mob money launderer, who wants him to succeed in a legitimate career.
“He lectured me sternly – almost angrily. I had, after years of searching, finally discovered the nature of my father’s work, and he forbade me to admire him for it.”
In his first summer after graduation, Art is looking for a bit of an adventure before ‘real life’ (and a real job) takes over. He meets the charming Arthur Lecomte (who is gay) and his friend, a highly literate biker, Cleveland Arning. Art also begins a relationship with an insecure young woman, Phlox, while also lusting after Cleveland’s long-term girlfriend, Jane. But nothing’s ever easy and soon Art’s attraction to Arthur grows, throwing his relationships and his sexuality into doubt.
I am wondering how I missed this book in the nineties when, like other Gen-Xers, I was overdosing on Easton-Ellis et al.The book has a fantastic sense of place – I’ve never been to Pittsburgh but Chabon creates it for the reader.
“I walked the quiet dinner time streets, thinking of a cold, simple meal and whispered sex, thinking, more guiltily, that I would have to even out my day with Arthur by speaking softly into Phlox’s ear all evening…”
Sense of time was a different issue – I don’t expect loads of pop-culture references (and in fact don’t like the blatant use of them to create time) but for a book set in the eighties, the time of my youth, I wasn’t feeling it.
I enjoyed Chabon’s sense of humour, tightly woven into the text with lines such as “I admit I have an ugly fondness for generalisations, so perhaps I may be forgiven when I declare that there is always something weird about a girl that majors in French.”
When this book was first published, there was a lot of fuss about the gay and bi-sexual themes. In fact, I believe that Chabon became somewhat of a poster-boy for gay writers. Chabon is now married to author Ayelet Waldman but has also mentioned in interviews that he has had a same-sex relationship – it made no difference as the characters were beautifully developed.
“The casual revelation of his having slept with Mohammad after the incident at the party was so complex, so wondrous, that it left me simultaneously relieved, curious, confused, nauseated, and admiring. I formulated and rejected eight or nine incoherent questions before realising that they all boiled down to something along the lines of ‘You slept with Momo?'”
I can’t help feeling I would have loved this book more if I’d read it when it was first published. Have I been a little spoilt by Easton-Ellis, Sittenfeld and most recently the brilliant Harbach? When Mysteries was first published in 1989 was it super-fresh? I’ll never know but I am looking forward to reading Chabon’s latest, Telegraph Avenue, to get a sense of hot-off-the-press-Chabon.
There are a handful of brilliant scenes where Art and his father share a meal. The dialogue shines – laconic and smart – definite highlights. During one such meal, Art enjoys a bowl of lobster bisque. I love seafood soups and pounced on this incredible recipe for Lobster Bisque with Lobster Ice Cream – sounds bizarre, looks amazing. It comes from blog The Dog’s Breakfast – my new favourite (it’s all about the pictures – food porn).
3.5/5 Nudging a four but I felt a little lost at the end, when it all wound up rather quickly.