Friday, May 27, 2005

On The Mysteries of Pittsburgh

It's no surprise that I love books. Neither should it be a great surprise that I have a number of "favorite authors" but no single one that I would call my absolute favorite. I have about five or so authors that I rank above all the others...who's books I gobble up as soon as they come out - not waiting for paperbacks, or to finish other things I'm working on, etc. These are the authors who's newest book I buy as soon as I can and put everything else aside to read them. Authors who's books I will intentionally slow down reading...in order to "savor" them (if that's possible...or makes any sense). Nick Hornby is one - I'm currently reading his latest novel, A Long Way Down at the expense of everything else. Indeed...I bought it from the UK and paid the expensive shipping so I could read it a month before it came out here in the States. Alan Furst is another. Kim Stanley Robinson. Eric Garcia (the newest to grace this list).

And, of course...Michael Chabon.

I have an interesting history with Mr. Chabon's work. I didn't start at the beginning with him...more like the middle. Back in 1999, I was looking for something new to read...something interesting, good, literate. I was preparing for my big move to Washington, DC at the time, and looking for a good book to inspire me (at least, so I remember). While browsing the fiction isles at the Barnes & Noble in Topeka (a truly awful place - I'm not a big fan of B&N to begin with, but the one in Topeka is flat-out horrible. Sadly, it's the only real bookstore of any kind in the city), I came across Michael Chabon's books. The store (typical - see above) only had one of his novels (he had published two) and none of the short story collections. The novel they did have was titled Wonder Boys. Remember...this was long before the Michael Douglas/Tobey Maguire movie came out, so I'd never heard of it. It had some excellent reviews on the cover and back, and an interesting description. But what caught my eye to begin with was the fantastic cover art (most copies you find nowadays have the Michael Douglas movie tie-in cover). It was pink and orange and black with this big green convertible car on the cover. If nothing else, it caught my eye. I flipped though it, found it readable, and walked out with a copy.

Keep in mind...I'd never heard one thing about Chabon. This was long before I read The New Yorker, or the New York Times Book Review or any of the literary sites I visit nowadays. I was, if anything at the time, a literary novice without any sort of guide.

Needless to say, I fell in love with the book and finished it just before I made the big move to DC. When my car was stolen, and then (unfortunately) recovered (a story for another time), the book was missing. My guess is that one of the thugs who took the car dumped it along with the car's other contents in a field or a trash can somewhere (alternatively, there is a well read thug who likes to listen to Mahler and Miles Davis). For years and years...I couldn't get a replacement copy because I refused to buy the movie tie-in with Michael Douglas on the cover (I eventually bought a hardback copy used).

Anyway...over the next year I gobbled up the collections of short stories and then when it was time to move again a year later (this time to Crystal City), I was reading his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. Which I loved (though there is a personal story with that novel...which revealed an uncomfortable side of me and I won't share here...at least not right now), though it does have some of the usual problems you find in "first novels."

I could go on and on about him. Perhaps the best compliment I can give is that Chabon made me want to become a more literary reader - less junk, more substance. I wanted more...more of what I read in Wonder Boys. And so I started seeking out better and better authors to read. I started challenging myself. I started stretching my reading habits and even including some works that were difficult. And I've been rewarded for it.

Anyway...all of this is prelude to a very interesting essay by Chabon in June's issue of The New York Review of Books. In it, he talks about his motivations, influences, fears, and process for writing his first novel, the aforementioned The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. I found the article to be a fascinating look into the writing process for a first novel, as well as a deeper look into a novel I quite like (even if I feel it to be less polished than his later two novels). Give it a read. And if it makes you want to give Chabon a try...well...I'd encourage that, too.

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