Ode to an able writer

Local: Former educators remember Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Chabon as bright and imaginative.

April 18, 2001|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,SUN STAFF

Virginia Pausch was sitting down to breakfast yesterday when she heard the news: Michael Chabon, her student 21 years ago at Howard High School, had won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay."

Not only that, but this 659-page opus just happened to be Pausch's favorite of all of Chabon's books. It is the story of two Jewish teen-agers in the late 1930s - a Czech immigrant and his American cousin - who team up to create superheroes during the golden age of comic books. A finalist for the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award, "Kavalier & Clay" has been described as "epic," "richly imagined" and "perfectly paced."

"The characterization is what I like best about it," says Chabon's former English teacher.

During the past dozen years, the 37-year-old writer has received critical acclaim for such work as his novel "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh" and "A Model World," a collection of short stories. Last year, a film based on his novel "The Wonder Boys" was released, starring Michael Douglas. (Now living in Berkeley, Calif., Chabon, pronounced SHAY-bon, could not be reached for comment.)

But before he collected glowing reviews, before he became a rising star in the writing program at UC Irvine, before he majored in English at the University of Pittsburgh, Mike Chabon was a boy who lived in Columbia, dreamed of imaginary places and left impressions on his teachers in Ellicott City.

"When I didn't know the answer to something in class, I'd ask Mike," says Pausch, who taught advanced senior English. "He was also extremely knowledgeable about words in general, as well as about writing and literature. And he was always very helpful to other students. He never lorded it over them even though he knew so much more than they did. We used to emphasize vocabulary a lot ... and he was always ready to help other students understand the meanings of other words."

English teachers knew that Michael Chabon devoured words. Eleanor Thompson, the retired school librarian, recalls his mother saying that Mike loved to read dictionaries.

But perhaps no one realized how much verbal stimulation came just from living in Columbia. When Chabon moved there in 1970, he says he became captivated by the town's then-imaginary neighborhoods, and by the street and place names which existed only in plans.

"Moving into the midst of that unfinished and ongoing act of architectural and social imagination altered the course of my life and made me into the writer that I am," he says in an essay written for this month's Architectural Digest.

Chabon's family - his father was a pediatrician for the Columbia Medical Plan - moved into a "pseudo-colonial tract house" at 5179 Eliots Oak Road in the neighborhood of Longfellow in the Village of Harpers Choice. Before long, the 7-year-old boy had tacked up a map of Columbia next to his maps of Disney World's Magic Kingdom and his own imaginary world, Davoria.

Every night he would feast upon his town's new and still-imagined geography, upon streets named Drystraw Drive, Luckpenny Lane, Cloudleap Court and Newgrange Garth.

"To me, the remarkable thing about those names was not their oddity but the simple fact that most of them referred to locations that did not exist," he writes. "They were like magic spells, each one calibrated to call into being one particular stretch of blacktop, sidewalk and lawn, and no other."

He grew to realize many names intersected with literature; Phelps Luck, for instance, connected with American poet Robinson Jeffers.

"How fortunate I was to be handed a map ornamented with complex nomenclature of allusions drawn from the poems, novels and stories of mysterious men named Faulkner, Hemingway, Frost, Hawthorne and Fitzgerald! Those names, that adventure, are with me still, every time I sit down at the keyboard to sail off, clutching some dubious map or other, into terra incognita."

Chabon's poetic musing on Columbia makes it's easy to imagine why Shirley Lentz, his retired composition teacher, considered him "a teacher's dream."

She recalls pieces from the "writer's notebook" he kept for her class, thoughts about his younger brother and about the breakup of their parents' marriage.

"The lyricism of the writing: The metaphors and similes ... were something you didn't forget," Lentz says. "There was something very special about the depth of Mike's writing, about his ability to focus on things."

Monroe Burk, Chabon's former next-door neighbor, also remembers the teen-ager's success as a member of the "It's Academic" television quiz show and his endless appetite for discussing economics and other "serious subjects." The 83-year-old retired educator says he once wrote a poem in honor of Michael. In it, he concludes that it takes a kind of genius to even recognize genius. And no, he did not consider Chabon to be a genius back when he was living next to him.

Both Virginia Pausch and Shirley Lentz have taught many gifted writing students and felt thrilled by their potential. But, so far, Mike Chabon is the only one they know of who has made good on such promise.

"Many children have said to me that they would be writers - but it just doesn't happen," Lentz says. "It's a very difficult route."

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