The Mysteries of Pittsburgh

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

Michael Chabon’s first novel is an impressive debut. Too self-conscious and in love with language for its own sake—like many first novels—The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is nevertheless a compelling portrait of a generation at loose ends. With artistic sensibilities but no discipline, Chabon’s protagonists have little insight into themselves and feel disillusioned with their era. They find love less a refuge than an additional source of confusion.

Art Bechstein has just completed four years at the University of Pittsburgh, studying—cynically, he says—economics. He is now killing time working in a depressing, third-rate bookstore near the campus. Art is suffering slightly from his recent breakup with his girlfriend and has no immediate plans for his life. His father accuses him of being a “devout narcissist” and worries that he is “doomed to terminal adolescence.”

Part of Art’s problem is his lack of any definite identity and any close attachments. His mother died when he was twelve, supposedly killed in an automobile accident. Six months later, at Art’s Bar Mitzvah, Joseph Bechstein, educated and urbane, an amateur painter, told his son that he is a gangster. “Joe the Egg” works for a Baltimore Mafia family, pouring the profits from numbers, prostitution, loan-sharking, and protection into Swiss bank accounts. As a young teenager, Art found the idea of his father’s life glamorous; now, he is embarrassed by it, almost as ashamed as Joe himself.

Art is a cipher with no personality or sense of style except for what he absorbs from those around him. In the opening pages of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, he finds three such friends. He is enthralled by Phlox Lombardi at his first sight of her. An amalgam of verbal and dress styles, she is as eccentric as her name. Art is equally infatuated with Arthur Lecomte, quickly adopting him as an ideal:It seemed to me that Arthur, with his old, strange courtliness, would triumph over any scene he chose to make; that in a world made miserable by frankness, his handsome condescension, his elitism, and his perfect lack of candor were fatal gifts, and I wanted to serve in his corps and ... be socially graceful.

Arthur becomes more than Art’s alter ego. The protagonist has had doubts about his sexual identity and feels attracted to the homosexual Arthur. The third influence on Bechstein in his summer of change is Lecomte’s best friend, Cleveland Arning. Cleveland is decidedly unglamorous and uncourtly, with black horn-rimmed glasses, a motorcycle jacket, and a beer gut. The outlandish Cleveland is larger than life, a performer always onstage. He introduces himself by making a dramatic entrance to the bookstore, asking for a copy of Son of a Gangster by Art Bechstein, and kidnapping Art on the back of his motorcycle. Cleveland knows Art’s secret, since he collects payments on illegal loans for one of Joe the Egg’s Pittsburgh associates.

As Art’s romance with Phlox progresses, he finds himself spending more time with Arthur. In a moment of passion seemingly spurred by his desire to hurt Phlox and his father, Art becomes Lecomte’s lover. Phlox knows instantly what has transpired, tries to win him back, and forces him to choose. Art picks Arthur but remains uncertain about his preference of loves and sexual persuasion. Meanwhile, the irrepressible Cleveland coerces Art into an introduction to Joe the Egg. Art’s father deeply resents this connection between his son and crime and sets up Cleveland with the police. Art begs his father to call them off, but Joe refuses. In the resulting chase, Cleveland falls to his death from atop a factory. Joe also learns about Arthur and orders him out of town. Art and Arthur run away to France and Spain, but their romance ends.

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is a coming-of-age novel in the tradition of—and with similarities to—F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise (1920). Art has not matured before this chaotic summer because he has lived too safe an existence. He berates himself for his “failure to encounter, to risk, to land [himself] in novel and incomprehensible situations—to misunderstand, in fact.” He is drawn to Phlox, Arthur, and Cleveland because they represent risk taking. Of the three, finally, he cares more for Cleveland since “there was no shadow of sex to mar or deepen” their relationship. Art...

(The entire section is 1814 words.)

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh Bibliography

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Banks, Carolyn. “Bright Lights, Steel City.” The Washington Post Book World, April 24, 1988, p. 5. Compares Art Bechstein with his literary precursors Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield and contrasts the comic motifs of the book with its sad side. Summarizes stylistic highlights.

Kaveney, Roz. “As They Mean to Go On.” New Statesman 116 (May 13, 1988): 34-35. Considers the novel as a Bildungsroman about writing a novel. Identifies attributes of Chabon’s style that permit him to transform unlikely situations into plausible scenarios.

Keates, Jonathan. “The Boy Can’t Help It.” The Times Literary Supplement, June 23, 1988, p. 680. Discusses the meaning of the “mystery” of the title, evaluates claims made for Chabon’s talents, and demonstrates how Chabon transforms familiar formulaic devices.

Lott, Brett. “Lover in a World Too Full for Love.” Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 17, 1988, p. 1. Sets the literary context in which the book appears (“jaded young writers”) and shows how Chabon surpasses his peers by going deeper into the nature of love and friendship. Assesses the book’s weaknesses and virtues and examines Chabon’s use of sexual identity as a psychic checkpoint.

McDermott, Alice. “Gangsters and Pranksters.” The New York Times Book Review, April 3, 1988, p. 7. Points out the novel’s limitations of some weak characters and unclear relationships and mentions that these are balanced by Chabon’s language, wit, and ambition.

See, Lisa. “Michael Chabon: Wonder Boy in Transition.” Publishers Weekly 242 (April 10, 1995): 44-45. Traces Chabon’s career from the publication of his successful first novel The Mysteries of Pittsburgh to his second book, Wonder Boys (1995). Addresses the issue of a writer living up to the success of his initial book. Provides a good overview of Chabon’s career.