The Mysteries of Pittsburgh Summary
by Michael Chabon

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The Mysteries of Pittsburgh Summary

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh follows Art Bechstein, the narrator, from the time of his graduation from college through a summer. During those months, the direction of his life is determined, through a series of intense, interlocking relationships with three other young people.

As the narration begins, Art is particularly vulnerable. He is without the structure provided by his educational experiences, faces the unappealing prospect of becoming part of the adult world of responsibility, and sees the possibility of a fulfilling existence as vague and elusive. His sense of himself rests on a shifting, unsteady foundation of injunctions from his stern father. He has an ambiguous but insistent inclination to spend this last summer of relative freedom “fluttering ever upward,” but he has no idea of what this would entail, nor of what he needs to learn about himself and the world. He is nevertheless determined to permit “novel and incomprehensible situations” to absorb him. When he is invited to join a group of revelers by an intriguing young man, Arthur Lecomte, he has few qualms about accepting. Arthur’s speech, style of dress, and patterns of pleasure imply excitement. Art does remain wary of Lecomte’s apparent homosexuality but is drawn by its implications of participation in the realm of the forbidden.

The social nexus into which Art is drawn centers on Lecomte and two of his acquaintances, a young woman, Phlox Lombardi, who works in the university library while studying French, and Cleveland Arning, a young man who has been living on the edge of society. Arning is rebellious, courting danger and espousing defiance. Art, who has been a dutiful son guided by the wishes, suggestions, and various forms of subtle coercion exercised by his father, a gangster, finds the unpredictable, spontaneous rhythms of his new friends exciting. He begins to develop, in the course of their adventures and escapades, a particular relationship with each of the three. He remains linked to old habits of responsibility through his contacts with his father and his work at a mass-market book dispensary that mocks his love for literature with its commercial method of operation. The lure of the apparently freer, more genuine, more gratifying lives of his new friends opens a door that Art sees as an entrance to a cosmos of infinite possibility. One of the most appealing aspects of this different life is the opportunity for explorations of intimacy in terms of intense friendship and sexual experimentation. Art is uncertain of his inclinations in these areas. The summer he spends with Arthur, Cleveland, and Phlox becomes a quest for his true self.

As the summer progresses, Art is lifted in a whirl of excitement and exhilaration, living in a movable feast of food, drink, appreciation of others’ clothes and wit, and expressive gestures of aesthetic sensibility. With little regard for the remainder of the human race, the self-selected elite to which Art belongs amuses itself by outrageous acts toward hopelessly square parents, drones in dumb jobs, and anyone who is not attuned to the somewhat outré literary ambience that guides them. At the root of their actions, Art begins to realize, is a fear that they will be absorbed and reduced to normality by the drab, often dysfunctional, world. The expanding uncertainty and dread gradually undermining Art’s delight in his summer escapades is compounded by a growing sense of sexual confusion, as he finds himself both fully involved in a satisfying sensual relationship with Phlox and a thrilling but unsettling erotic adventure with Arthur.

Art’s eventual discovery of the facts behind the façade of manner that Arthur has constructed, along with the intermingling of his own uneasiness about his family’s income from crime with Cleveland’s involvement in the same criminal organization, leads to the climactic episode of the novel. Cleveland is killed while fleeing from the police in a setup engineered by Joe...

(The entire section is 1,616 words.)