The Mysteries of Pittsburgh

by Michael Chabon
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 872

Art Bechstein is a drifting young Jewish man in conflict with both his sexuality and his father, Joe Bechstein, a widowed gangster. They meet for lunch while Joe is visiting Pittsburgh on business. Art is uncomfortable with his father’s work and keeps it a secret from everyone in his life; in turn, Joe is puzzled and dismayed by his son’s choices. The two men struggle to relate to one another.

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Art has just finished college. On a final trip to the library, he meets Arthur Lecomte, a handsome, sophisticated young man. Art immediately identifies Arthur as gay and strains to appear comfortable with that fact. Their impromptu conversation turns into a long drunken evening that ends at a house party. There, Art is introduced to Jane Bellwether, who is dating Arthur’s best friend Cleveland. She and Arthur swap stories about Cleveland, who is an adventurous and unpredictable alcoholic. Arthur is clearly attracted to Art, who deflects the attention by asking about Phlox, a beautiful girl who works with Arthur.

A few days later, Art’s shift at Boardwalk Books is interrupted by the appearance of a large, leather-clad biker who forces Art away from work by mentioning his gangster father. After the two speed off on his motorcycle, the man reveals himself to be Cleveland and tells Art that he works as a debt collector for Uncle Lenny, one of Joe’s underlings. They find Arthur and spend the night drinking, after which Arthur tries to kiss Art but is rebuffed.

Over the next few weeks, Art becomes close friends with Arthur. The two alternately spend their time drinking and hanging out on a hill overlooking an area of the city they call the Lost Neighborhood. The area includes the Cloud Factory, whose only product seems to be the perfect white puffs of smoke drifting from its stacks.

At the same time, Art develops a romantic and sexual relationship with Phlox, though they argue about Arthur and homosexuality, which she considers disgusting. Cleveland asks Art to introduce him to his father, but he refuses, uncomfortable that Cleveland has access to a part of his life that he tries so hard to keep secret. Jealous tension builds between Arthur and Phlox. One day, while lounging at a swimming pool, Art is flustered to be caught admiring Arthur’s body and finally admits to himself that he is in love with another man.

One day, Cleveland convinces Art to go on his loan collection rounds with him. An altercation with a couple of small-time gangsters turns out to be a setup orchestrated by Cleveland in order to meet Art’s father. The two interrupt Joe Bechstein in the middle of a meeting, and though the situation is tense, Cleveland lands a job with one of Joe’s associates.

Upset by the scene with his father, Art goes to Arthur and they have sex. He confesses to Phlox that he cheated on her, inventing a female partner. When she runs into Art and Arthur together, however, she realizes the truth. After the confrontation, Art goes home alone.

Cleveland tells Art that he must choose between his two lovers. When Art learns that Cleveland is training to be a jewel thief, they argue; Art is both worried for his friend and uncomfortable about the blurred boundary between his family life and his friends. Leaving abruptly, Cleveland accidentally takes a letter from Phlox to Art that mentions his affair with Arthur.

Meanwhile, Phlox fades into the background of Art’s life as he pursues his relationship with Arthur at the luxurious home where Arthur is house-sitting. One day, Arthur’s mother visits, and Art realizes that Arthur has a working-class background and that his air of sophistication and worldliness is manufactured. Their brief domesticity ends when the owners of the home return.

Phlox arranges a meeting with Art at the library under false pretenses. They reconcile and have sex, but his heart is not in it. He sneaks out while she is sleeping to confess to Arthur. He asks Arthur not to make him choose between the two of them, and Arthur agrees, begging him not to end their relationship.

When Cleveland attempts his first heist, things go horribly awry. He is drunk and breaks into a house while the family is downstairs eating dinner. Angered that his son is hanging out with low-level criminals, Joe Bechstein tries to teach Cleveland a lesson by informing the police of Cleveland’s crime. After leading a high-speed chase on his motorcycle, Cleveland evades capture. Art tries to call his father to convince him to leave Cleveland alone, but Joe will not accept his collect call. Meanwhile, the police find Cleveland. While Art watches, his friend attempts to escape by climbing to the top of the Cloud Factory and falls to his death.

In the aftermath, Art refuses to see his father. Joe learns of his son’s relationship with Arthur when Phlox’s letter is found on Cleveland’s body. Joe’s thugs threaten Arthur and tell him to leave town. Art and Arthur run away to New York and then to Europe, where eventually their relationship dissolves. Art never sees Phlox or his father again.

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