(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,...

(The entire section is 744 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 872 words.)