The Mysteries of Pittsburgh

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In a nearly deserted university library, finishing the last overdue paper of his college career (a study of Sigmund Freud’s letters to the cocaine-crazed Viennese nose doctor, Wilhelm Fliess), Art Bechstein meets two of the formidable characters who are destined to change the course of his life during the coming summer. Arthur Lecomte is a witty, self-confident, aggressively homosexual house-sitter. Phlox Lombardi is a post-punk French major whose favorite book is THE STORY OF O. Through them he meets the bookish motorcycle bandit Cleveland Arning, the “splendid” Jane Bellwether, and a hearty band of party-going preppies. Bechstein is promptly seduced by Phlox Lombardi, but Arthur Lecomte refuses to give up hope. Mystery number one: Is Bechstein straight or gay?

Entirely separate from this youthful party scene is the stifling world of adults. In Michael Chabon’s Pittsburgh, grown-ups are invariably ridiculous and depressing. Art Bechstein’s mother died when he was a child. His father is a professional gangster, but Art prefers to tell people that he is in finance. Cleveland Arning’s crazy dad has a male lover living in his bedroom. The domineering Mrs. Bellwether takes her aggressions out on the pets. Mystery number two: What exactly happened to Bechstein’s mother?

Chabon’s cast of characters is neatly divided into binary pairs, illustrating “good” and “bad” aspects of various types of behavior: Lecomte and Mr. Arning, Cleveland and Mr. Bechstein, Phlox and Mrs. Bellwether. The message seems to be that the most well-intentioned experiments in living inevitably fossilize...

(The entire section is 661 words.)