'Wonder Boys' is impressive and funny

March 06, 1995|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Sun Staff Writer

This is a novel about writing, and it is a beautifully imagined and impressive piece of work. Michael Chabon gets inside the mind of a writer, and examines the creative process, with a sureness and a wisdom that are astonishing in a second novel.

Then again, Mr. Chabon, who grew up in Howard County, showed a lot of potential -- and guts -- in his first novel, the much-lauded "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh." That book gained a lot of notice in 1988, first because the author, then 24, had gotten an advance of $155,000, an extraordinary sum for a literary novel.

"Mysteries" was essentially a coming-of-age novel, usually an invitation for a first-time writer to be unspeakably self-indulgent and precious. But the author showed surprising gifts: a flair for characterization, gentle wit, an ability to be both dispassionate and sympathetic, and, above all, a lyrical writing style.

In "Wonder Boys," Mr. Chabon again takes a potentially trite idea -- a novel about a writer -- and emerges with a thoughtful and often very funny examination of what it means to be a creative artist. Notwithstanding Saul Bellow's "Humboldt's Gift" and a precious few other novels, fiction about a writer tends to be self-absorbed, or so "inside" that it has little to offer to the general reader.

"Wonder Boys" centers on the life of Grady Tripp, ``TC semi-successful novelist and reluctant writing professor at a college in Pittsburgh. Grady is 41, quite fat, a lover of marijuana and somewhat of a dissolute. As the book opens, his third marriage is about to go bust and he is mired in a 2,600-page novel that has taken up the last seven years of his life. And like his life, his novel, called "Wonder Boys," is going nowhere.

Grady is obsessed with writing "Wonder Boys" -- "three brothers in a haunted Pennsylvania small town are born, grow up and die," as he describes it -- but for the life of him he can't finish it. His meandering novel has "too many terrible genetic and fiduciary secrets to dig up and bury and dig up again, too many divorces to grant, heirs to disinherit, trysts to arrange, letters to misdirect into evil hands, innocent children to slay with rheumatic fever, women to leave unfulfilled and hopeless, men to drive to adultery and theft, fires to ignite at the hearts of ancient houses."

Now one of his oldest friends from college, Terry Crabtree, who is a book editor, is coming into town for a literary conference and also the occasion to look at the still aborning "Wonder Boys." Grady reassures Crabtree at the airport when he picks him up: "It's basically done. I'm just sort of, you know, tinkering with it now, buddy."

It's not true, of course, but Grady's good at deception, both of others and himself. His wife, Emily, just left him, in part because she found out that Grady had been carrying on an affair with Sara, a dean at the college where he teaches.

How Grady tries to resolve his messy personal life with the frustrations of the writing life is at the core of "Wonder Boys." He careens from one ludicrous situation to another. He befriends James Leer, a certifiably weird writing student of his who, at a party at Sara's house, accidentally shoots her dog and then steals a rare piece of Marilyn Monroe clothing from Sara's husband, a snobby collector of memorabilia. Leer is haunted by the movies -- his own work-in-progress, "Love Parade," is filled with movie allusions, and when Frank Capra died, Leer carved the director's name on the back of one hand.

After that raucous party, in which Grady drives away with a drunken James and Sara's dead dog, the two head out to Emily's family, which is preparing for the Passover Seder. It's safe to say that Mr. Chabon's off-center sensibility may never be more acute, more funny and ultimately more touching than his extended set-piece involving Emily's most improbable Jewish family.

And while he discovers that James is at once more bizarre and more achingly human than he had realized, Grady relentlessly confronts his own fears and concerns about writing. He would wonder, he says, "if people who wrote fiction were not suffering from some kind of disorder -- from what I've since come to think of . . . as the midnight disease. The midnight disease is a kind of emotional insomnia; at every conscious moment its victim -- even if he or she writes at dawn, or in the middle of the afternoon -- feels like a person lying in a sweltering bedroom, with the window thrown open, looking up at a sky filled with stars and airplanes . . ."

There are few scenes that feel forced, few lines that seem overwritten in "Wonder Boys." It's the work of a gifted writer who continues to surprise and delight.

Mr. Warren's reviews appear Mondays in The Sun.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Wonder Boys"

Author: Michael Chabon

Publisher: Villard

Length, price: 352 pages, $23

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