Wonder Boys

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 355

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.

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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

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1840

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, and takes what he can. Chabon develops him cleverly through having him continually say one thing and think another, the thought always following the quoted material: “‘You are looking so well.’ Doesn’t she look awful?”

Into the mix comes James Leer, Grady’s student, depressed because his story has just been torn to shreds by the students in Grady’s creative writing class. Grady and Terry are attending a party the Gaskells are hosting in their home for WordFest. Grady steals outside and finds James there in the moonlight, a small revolver in his hand, seemingly about to kill himself. James tells Grady that the revolver is only a toy, but it proves not to be, as Grady discovers when James shoots and kills the Gaskells’ dog, Doctor Dee, a blind, mangy mutt that has attacked Grady. The attack occurs when Grady takes James, an inveterate film buff, to the Gaskells’ bedroom to show him the black silk jacket with ermine trim that Marilyn Monroe wore when she married Joe DiMaggio. Walter Gaskell, a baseball buff, surrounds himself with such memorabilia.

Terrified by what has happened, Grady gets the dog’s carcass into the car’s trunk, where, in narration reminiscent of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (1930), it remains, rotting, through much of the remainder of the novel. James, in a moment of light-fingered enthusiasm, makes off with the black silk jacket—an act that eventually brings the police into the matter.

Meanwhile, Terry has been trying to put the make on the sexually confused James, whom Grady whisks away to Kinship, the rural retirement venue of his Warshaw in-laws. They will have Passover with the Warshaws, who are a curious lot: a Jewish couple whose own son drowned and who adopted Korean children, of whom Emily is one. These Koreans are now also Jews who celebrate the high holidays.

James turns out to be a pathological liar who has constructed a fictional family for himself that he tries to pass off as real, but even their town, Carvel near Scranton, exists only in his unpublished novel about a boy whose father is also his grandfather. Is Chabon suggesting that if one wants to write fiction, it helps to be a pathological liar? At any rate, before story’s end, it is James Leer’s book that is accepted for publication.

In the course of the Passover visit to the country, Grady accidentally runs over and kills Grossman, a boa constrictor as thick as transatlantic telephone cables once were, a creature the Warshaws have been tending for their foster son. Grady stuffs Grossman into the trunk of his old Galaxy, which already holds the dead Doctor Dee and Albert Vetch’s tuba.

In a subplot, Chabon reveals that the Galaxy, given to Grady to satisfy a debt but never titled to him because of missing paperwork, really belongs to Vernon Hardapple, a punchy prizefighter whose real name proves to be Peterson Walker. Earlier in the novel, a drunken Vernon tries to reclaim the car and in one great leap lands on its hood with an impact sufficient to leave on it the unmistakable impression of his derriere.

After Grady and James return home following the Passover meal, Grady, high on pot, having left Doctor Dee for James’s super-straight, country club parents (or grandparents, as James insists they are) to find, vows to return Marilyn Monroe’s jacket to Gaskell with an explanation that will mollify both him and the police, but all of that must wait until morning. Grady parks his car, with the jacket neatly folded on the back seat, boa and tuba still in the trunk, in his driveway. The next morning (a Sunday), it is gone. The loss of the car is less of a problem than the loss of the jacket, because James has now been taken in for questioning by the police, to whom Grady had promised the return of the missing jacket.

In his pursuit of the car, Grady takes with him the only copy of his novel, which Hannah Greene has just read and on whose ending she has commented negatively. Terry, who has also read parts of the novel and tells Grady that he cannot recommend publication because his own job is on the line, is driving. In the course of a nasty parking-lot encounter with Vernon Hardapple, the pages of the novel begin to blow away; Grady manages to save only seven of them, one for each year he has been working on it.

In the end, in a scene reminiscent of the final chapter of Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust (1934), Walter is presiding over the closing session of WordFest. He announces that one outcome of this year’s meeting is that Terry Crabtree has accepted James Leer’s novel for publication. He does not know that Terry has finally gotten James into bed.

A great irony in the story is that Grady and Emily have been trying for years to conceive a child. Emily thought that Grady’s pot smoking had reduced his sperm count, which accounted for their lack of success. It turns out, however, that Grady has impregnated Sara, now forty-five years old. She decides to have the baby, her first. She and Grady, once divorced, marry and go off to Coxley College, Vetch’s old institution, where Sara becomes dean of students and Grady teaches creative writing part time.

Reading Wonder Boys is good fun. Chabon has an excellent sense of ironic juxtapositions. He gets away with outrageous improbabilities simply by making them too outrageous for his readers to contest. In James Leer he builds an alter ego, whereas in Grady Tripp he has constructed his superego. The balance he achieves works well.

The writing in this novel is deft and—save for a few seeming lapses such as the gratuitous introduction of the transvestite—extraordinarily well controlled. Chabon’s satirical tone is light and well sustained throughout the novel, which contains a persistent undercurrent of critical commentary on the academic world. Whereas much contemporary satire ends in a suicide of overdone detail, the satire in this book remains sparkling, cogent, and appropriately light.

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.

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