As a fan of Chabon’s most popular books, Kavalier & Clay and The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, I felt a certain obligation to check out his first novel when I came across it at the library. The same wit and freshness of language that makes Chabon’s writing so compelling kept me going through The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, but I have to say that the novel itself left me shaking my head in disappointment, until I learned that this was actually Chabon’s MFA thesis in creative writing, and I found I was somewhat able to forgive him for the sophomoric story and its rather stereotyped characters.
Art Bechstein has just graduated college, and is starting a final summer in Pittsburgh before he must face the real world. His mother died six months before his bar mitzvah at age 13, where he learned his father was a top level gangster in a DC-based mob family. By the beginning of the story, Art and his father have a tenuous relationship of occasional meals out at fancy restaurant when his father comes to town to do “business.” Usually, those meals end with Art reduced to tears by his father’s undisguised disappointment in his son’s aimlessness. Soon Art meets, in rapid succession, a girl named Phlox who tries on and discards identities and is enamored of Art, a boy named Arthur Lecomte who is handsome, debonair, dissipated, lives in other people’s homes as a house sitter, and homosexual, and Arthur’s large heterosexual friend Cleveland, a product of wealthy parents who has grown his hair long, spouts poetry, acquired a beer gut and a motorcycle, and is a low-level “collector” in Bechstein, Sr.’s operations.
Art spends the summer like the little ball in a pinball machine, bouncing between his newly-acquired friends, and getting his eyes opened not only to sexual experiences with both Phlox and Arthur, but also to the sordid world underlying his father’s illicit and therefore somehow glamorous career. Eventually, Art’s affair with Phlox is revealed as more a refuge from the confusing and scary bouts of lust with Arthur than as love with Phlox. Cleveland exercises a different kind of hold on Art, the kind of larger-than-life, try everything, risk everything, fuck everything attitude that Art wishes he could safely dip into, but knows he can’t. Things come to a head when Cleveland demands to meet Art’s dad, who quickly concludes that his son is consorting with the very “low-life” types he had hoped to protect his son from, and decides to take action as the mobster that he is. Tragedy ensues, and Art ends up fleeing the cops, his father, and the country.
At the novel’s close, a somewhat benumbed Art is sitting somewhere in Europe nostalgically contemplating his lost summer and the friends he has left behind but feels he carries within himself. I, on the other hand, was left contemplating what so many ecstatic reviewers have called a brilliant “coming-of-age” tale but which struck me as more a collection of aimless and sad indulgences by a group of very clever, very bored, and very damaged young people. If Art learned anything from his “coming-of-age” experimentation, it wasn’t obvious from his concluding musings at the book’s end.