Stories by Michael Chabon: strongly drawn characters, elusive endings

June 30, 1991|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Mr. Warren is Book Editor of The Sun.

A MODEL WORLD: AND OTHER STORIES.

Michael Chabon.

Morrow.

` 207 pages. $18.95.

Nearly everyone walks carefully through life in the 11 stories that make up Michael Chabon's "A Model World." The characters are wounded, perpetually doubtful. They are young men involved in hopeless love affairs, or wondering when their first one -- hopeless or otherwise -- will occur. They are adolescent males whose families are torn apart by divorce, yet cannot find the right way to express their anger and pain. They are women in their 30s, perhaps ready for anything now that the marriage is over, or perhaps what they really want is to withdraw.

Mr. Chabon, who grew up in Washington and Columbia, displayed a strong sense of character a few years back in his first novel, "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh." That sense is the power behind "A Model World." Primarily, these stories -- most of which appeared in the New Yorker -- are middle-class domestic dramas, or sardonic coming-of-age tales. The endings usually are elusive, sometimes maddeningly so. A story can disappear in a mist of irony.

Yet the reader becomes annoyed at such disappearances precisely because Mr. Chabon is such an engaging stylist, and because in a matter of paragraphs he portrays characters we can care about.

This is especially true about the five stories that comprise the second half of the volume, named after the final story, "The Lost World." These are interlocking tales that tell of the effect of the parents' divorce on the Shapiro family. They begin with "The Little Knife," in which teen-age Nathan realizes on a vacation to Nags Head that his parents are irrefutably alienated from one another, and conclude with "The Lost World," in which Nathan has graduated to beer-drinking and awkwardly trying to put the moves on a childhood friend.

I was especially moved by "Admirals," which details an outing to Annapolis by Nathan, his younger brother Ricky, his now-separated father and his father's new girlfriend, Anne. Although Anne tries hard to ingratiate herself with Nathan, he cannot accept her as his dad's paramour. Nor, for that matter, is he prepared to deal with his mother's new life:

Each time, Nathan felt sad when the boyfriends stopped callin and didn't come to dinner anymore, though not as sad as his mother. Of the many new spectacles the divorce had created -- his mother, in a suit, happily leaving for work in the morning, Nathan fixing their dinner with the radio blaring -- the most disturbing was that of their mother crying, which she hadn't done even at the death of their grandfather but which now they had seen ten times at least.

During the course of their dinner together, Nathan sees ho close his father and girlfriend have become; he also observes how Ricky's demeanor changes when he is around their father now -- "with their father he was festive and wily, and full of comments, but he couldn't be trusted near anything valuable,

and sometimes the sturdiest appliances came to pieces under his hand."

for Nathan, his response is sleeplessness. Mr. Chabon writes, "He couldn't determine what it was that kept him awake, with a stomach ache, night after night." This story, so beautifully and subtly drawn, maintains its pull on us right to the end.

The six stories that make up the first half of this volume fall under the heading "A Model World." These characters often are in their 20s, out of college, living on the West Coast, and quite hip -- the latter attribute usually covering their rootlessness and aimlessness. I found them to be quite clever, with some dead-on observations, as in one narrator's description of breakfast with newly wedded friends: "Albert and Dawn were still in that period of total astonishment that follows a wedding, grinning at each other like two people who have survived an air crash without a scratch . . " ("Ocean Avenue").

Yet they ultimately take on the essence of the characters and milieu: facile and slightly transparent. The way that Mr. Chabon gives the reader the quick slip at the end grows more irritating with each story, and one notices right away in the book's second half the difference in emotional depth. Still, this is a satisfying collection, and Mr. Chabon promises much more.

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