Michael Chabon's 'World' reminiscent of Fitzgerald


July 17, 1991|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Evening Sun Staff

"A Model World and Other Stories, Michael Chabon, 207 pages, William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York, N.Y., $18.95.

MICHAEL CHABON wrote his novel "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh" as his thesis at the graduate writing workshop of the University of California at Irvine. "The Mysteries" earned him his M.F.A. and a $155,000 advance from his publisher.

The Mysteries also made him a very hot young author. Chabon was about the same age as was F. Scott Fitzgerald when he published his first novel, "This Side of Paradise." Chabon, who grew up in Columbia and Washington, is only 28 now, and if anything, better-looking than Fitzgerald.

Artie Bechstein of "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh" sometimes seems like the grandson, or great grandson of one of Fitzgerald's subsidiary characters, maybe Meyer Wolfsheim, Gatsby's racketeer partner. Bechstein's father is a gangster, a wiseguy wired into the Maggio family of Baltimore.

"The Mysteries of Pittsburgh" are not those revealed by the Gods, but by the glands, although the sly and smart Chabon attributes divine manifestations to Artie's lovers.

But generally "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh" for Artie are sexual. He's having a bit of gender confusion. He's wondering about what prefix to put to his sexual feelings.

One of the nice things about "The Mysteries" is the un-hysterical ease with which Chabon relates the love affair between Artie and his boyfriend, and between Artie and his girlfriend, too, for that matter.

Chabon might well be the voice of his era as Fitzgerald was of the Jazz Age, if there were an identifiable era here at the end of the 20th century.

He's more modest than that, by the way. He doesn't think he's as good as Fitzgerald or J.D. Salinger, to whom he's also often been compared. But he's a fine writer, indeed. And he stands up very well when compared to such rapidly cooling hot writers as Jay McInerney, Bret Easton Ellis, Tama Janowitz, etc., etc. One can only hope, by the way, that Michael J. Fox will never play Artie Bechstein.

With the publication of "The Mysteries," Chabon was interviewed or reviewed by such arbiters of hipdom as Interview, Vanity Fair, New York, Playboy, Cosmo, Glamour, not to mention "The CBS Morning News" and MTV. He's written for Mademoiselle, Gentlemen's Quarterly, Vogue and The New Yorker.

He seems to have weathered these authorial obligations with the cool dispatch his characters often display. He got married and bought a Volvo. And he's published his book of short stories "A Model World."

These are fluid, stylish, extremely well-crafted stories. They're like a book of gold leaf, fine and bright and true, but light and smooth, and as liable to float away as a kiss on the aether. Their very slipperyness is among their many attractions.

Two of them, in fact, end with a kiss: "S Angel" -- a title that derives from a mis-folded map of L.A. -- and "Ocean Avenue."

In "S Angel," Ira Wiseman floats around his cousin Sheila's wedding in a slightly worn Willi Smith jacket. He's attracted to an somewhat older woman named Carmen. He's derailed by a handsome, dominating and rich man named Jess Freefone. Chabon often names his characters like that: Jane Bellwether turns up in "Mysteries." She has a boyfriend names Cleverland Arning.

"S Angel" ends with Ira popping a couple of Carmen's pills and kissing the bride, soulfully one gathers.

"Ocean Avenue" announces its theme with its first sentence: "If you can still see how you could have once loved a person you are still in love . . . " "Ocean Avenue" ends with a dangerous kiss in the middle of a Los Angeles street, Ocean Avenue, of course.

Chabon writes a lot about graduate students. He has, after all, just finished school. In "A Model World," the narrator's friend Levine plagiarizes his doctoral theses and tells his academic adviser that the narrator is sleeping with his wife: "That sounds feasible," the good professor says.

The theses is accepted, the narrator -- Smith, in this case -- ends his affair, and the story ends with the nice line: ". . . the human race is now only a few years away, by most reckonings, from total dominion over the clouds."

"Smoke" is a pretty good story about baseball, about a pitcher who has lost his smoke. Chabon describes a woman in this story as having "pomaceus calves." He has a Samuel Beckettian fondness for salting his works with obscure but extraordinarily precise words. You could look it up.

The finest stories in this collection, I'd say, are those in the section entitled "The Lost World." These are strong, touching stories of the breakup of a marriage of the parents of a boy named Nathan Shapiro, and his almost coming of age. They have the elegiac, nostalgic tone that touches much of Chabon's work.

The stories in this collection are fine to read while waiting for Chabon's next novel. Nine of them appeared in The New Yorker. You might keep in mind that Fitzgerald published only three stories and two poems in the New Yorker and Ernest Hemingway only one "parody."

But then neither of those grand old masters of the story of American youth ever went to grad school to learn how to write.

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