Wonder Boys

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Grady Tripp, orphaned at four, hangs around writers. Albert Vetch, a gothic novelist, lived, as Grady did, in the hotel Tripp’s grandmother ran in western Pennsylvania. Young Grady found Vetch dead in his still-rocking chair, a bullet through his head, one Sunday at noon.

Tripp goes on to study creative writing and to write novels. He has two in print, but is languishing in a seven-year dry spell during which he has tried futilely to complete a novel, WONDER BOYS, that will assure his academic future.

The action of Chabon’s book takes place over the weekend when WordFest is being held on the campus where Grady teaches. His friend and fellow plagiarist—as undergraduates they both once swiped the same Vetch story for presentation as their own in class, thereby sealing their friendship— Terry Crabtree, now an editor, is a presenter at WordFest. He arrives with his airplane seatmate in tow, a transvestite named Antonia.

As the story develops, readers learn that Grady’s third wife, Emily, has left him upon learning that he has been carrying on an affair with Sara Gaskell, chancellor of the institution and wife of Walter Gaskell, head of the English Department and Grady’s boss. Sara, forty-five, has become pregnant with Grady’s child.

A convoluted but ever-amusing story unfolds. Terry rejects Grady’s novel in favor of taking the novel of Grady’s student, James Leer, whom Terry has seduced. Grady finally throws what is left of his novel away: a windstorm has already blown much of it into oblivion.

In the end, Grady and Sara divorce their mates, marry each other, and move to Coxley College, ironically the institution in Grady’s hometown where Albert Vetch was an English professor.

Sources for Further Study

Kirkus Reviews. LXII, December 1, 1994, p. 1557.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. March 26, 1995, p. 3.

The New Republic. CCXII, June 26, 1995, p. 40.

The New York Times Book Review. C, April 9, 1995, p. 7.

Newsweek. CXXV, April 10, 1995, p. 76.

San Francisco Review of Books. XX, March, 1995, p. 40.

Time. CXLV, April 10, 1995, p. 87.

The Times Literary Supplement. April 21, 1995, p. 20.

Vogue. CLXXXV, April, 1995, p. 236.

The Washington Post Book World. XXV, March 19, 1995, p. 3.

Wonder Boys

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Grady Tripp is talking with his father-in-law, Irv Warshaw, who has just reread Grady’s early novel, The Bottomlands. Asked how he likes the book on second reading, Irv responds (not unkindly, the author is quick to note), “It’s a young man’s book. It got me remembering how it felt to be young.” Asked how one likes Wonder Boys, one might answer (not unkindly) that it, too, is a young man’s book.

Michael Chabon’s second published novel, appearing seven years after his celebrated tour de force The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988) quickly draws readers into a rollicking world of interesting, zany people, quite talented, assembled on a college campus for WordFest, an annual event that brings writers and editors to town. Grady Tripp, overweight, just about over his third marriage, and overindulging in pot smoking, teaches creative writing at the host institution and is trying to complete the novel Wonder Boys, on which much of his academic future hangs. At it for seven years, he has a long manuscript that lacks the right ending. He should be able to finish it in two weeks or so, but he has been saying that for a long time.

It is interesting that after his first novel, Chabon went through a comparable dry spell. He took a hefty advance for his second novel, surrendered half of it to his former wife in a divorce, and finally presented an unwieldy manuscript, “Fountain City,” to his publisher, who found it unsuitable. The book remains unpublished.

Over a seven-month period following that disappointment, Chabon, who regularly had been publishing short stories (including the 1991 collection A Model World), produced Wonder Boys. This second novel is not only an exhilarating read but also a model of crisp, convincing characterization and, most especially, of intricate presentation of detail. Chabon is a highly visual person, and what he sees he remembers and describes with remarkable acuity. His other senses well attuned, he is competent as well with smells, sounds, tastes, and textures, which enter continually into his narrative.

Grady Tripp, orphaned by age four, has his first exposure to writers at an early age. Reared by his grandmother in her western Pennsylvania hotel, The McClelland, Grady gets to know one of the regular guests, Albert Vetch, a William Blake specialist who teaches English at nearby Coxley College. Vetch, using the pseudonym August Van Zorn, writes horror stories to pay for his wife’s confinement in a sanatorium near Erie, publishing them regularly in magazines and producing gothic novels in an unrelenting flow. Vetch’s wife dies as Grady broaches puberty. One day shortly thereafter, Grady, taking Vetch his lunch, finds him sitting in his chair, still rocking, dead from a self-inflicted bullet wound to the head—a neat death, as Grady remembers it.

It is because of Vetch that Grady, while an undergraduate taking a creative writing course, comes to meet Terry Crabtree, who some twenty years later would remain his closest friend and would-be editor. Grady and Terry are both due to present a story in the creative writing class, but Grady, unable to come up with anything, swipes one of Vetch’s stories and passes it off as his own. Ironically, Terry, having never intended to write an original story, swipes the same Vetch story. Because each of these literary thieves has the good sense to alter Vetch’s story somewhat, they alone are aware of the purloining, and this awareness creates between them a bond that strengthens through the years.

When Terry arrives for WordFest, at which he is a presenter, he has in tow his seatmate from his flight, Antonia Sloviak, whom Grady instantly recognizes as a transvestite. This character, although colorful, adds only color to the story and seems superfluous. Chabon reveals Terry’s homosexuality in other ways, so there is little artistic need for Antonia (Tony when she is not in drag). She departs before the real action begins.

Emily, Grady’s third wife, has left him on the day WordFest begins. She has gone home to spend Passover with her family, the Warshaws, and has left a note indicating that she will not return. Through her sister Deborah, she has learned that Grady for five years has carried on an affair with Sara Gaskell, chancellor of the university (Sara’s husband, Walter, is Grady’s boss).

Grady has little moral stamina. He wears his heart on his sleeve, falls in love easily,...

(The entire section is 1840 words.)