Often associated by critics with the coterie of young writers who emerged during the mid-1980’s—the “brat pack” that included such figures as Jay McInerney, Tama Janowitz, and Bret Easton Ellis—Michael Chabon (SHAY-bahn) enjoyed national renown following the critical and popular success of his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. Chabon earned a B.A. in English in 1984 from the University of Pittsburgh and an M.F.A. in 1987 from the University of California, Irvine, where he studied under Donald Heiney (MacDonald Harris). Inspired after winning a 1987 Mademoiselle short-story contest, Chabon wrote The Mysteries of Pittsburgh for his master’s thesis. After Heiney sent the manuscript to the literary agent Mary Evans at the Virginia Barber Agency in New York, William Morrow and Company purchased the hard-cover rights for the manuscript during a private auction for $155,000—one of the highest figures ever paid for a first novel.
A Bildungsroman in the tradition of such works as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise (1921) and J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951), Chabon’s novel focuses on the emotional and romantic evolution of Art Bechstein, whose recent college graduation ushers in the final summer of his youth. The son of a powerful gangster, Art encounters a dizzying array of people during his summer progress, including his namesake, the charming homosexual Arthur Lecomte; the bewitching Francophile Phlox; and Arthur’s best friend, the self-conscious opportunist and figure of legendary proportion, Cleveland Arning. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh finds its narrative strength in Chabon’s lyrical descriptions of Art’s evolution as he examines his conflicting feelings regarding his father’s iniquitous profession while also attempting to reconcile himself with his sexual attractions to both Arthur and Phlox. Although Art emerges from the summer bereft of the friendships that had brought about his personal transformation, the exuberance of Chabon’s prose reveals the first, precarious moments of Art’s incipient adulthood: “When I remember that dizzy summer, that dull, stupid, lovely, dire summer, it seems that in those days I ate my lunches, smelled another’s skin, noticed a shade of yellow, even simply sat, with greater lust and hopefulness—and that I lusted with greater faith, hoped with greater abandon. The people I loved were celebrities, surrounded by rumor and fanfare; the places I sat with them, movie lots and monuments.”
A national best-seller, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh rewarded Chabon with tremendous critical acclaim, yet the sudden onslaught of fame confronted the introverted Chabon with new, problematic regions of personal exposure in the name of marketing, including a request from The Gap that he model jeans and People magazine’s desire to include him in their annual “50 Most Beautiful People Issue.” During the five years after the publication of his first novel, Chabon divorced his first wife, moved six times, and married Ayelet Waldman. In addition to publishing short stories and essays in such periodicals as The New Yorker, Gentlemen’s Quarterly, and Vogue, Chabon devoted his energies to composing his second novel, tentatively entitled “Fountain City,” which eventually became a sprawling manuscript of more than fifteen hundred pages. “Fountain City” traces the story of a group of Utopian dreamers and environmental activists in the transatlantic locales of Florida and Paris.
Struggling under the burden of his unfinished second novel, Chabon published A Model World, and Other Stories, which collected his fictional periodical publications, including his award-winning story from Mademoiselle , “Blumenthal on the Air.” In addition to such stories as “S ANGEL,” “Ocean Avenue,” and “A Model World,” the volume also features a series of short stories that explore the early years of Nathan Shapiro, a young boy who wrestles with the pressures of his parents’...
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