on December 7, 1997
I hate reading reviews of books that begin, "The greatest book I ever read, it changed my life!" And so I'm a little embarrassed to write that "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh" is, uh, the greatest book I ever read, and it changed my life. OK, maybe it didn't exactly change my life, but when I finished the last page and went for a walk, the world was a different place. It was a world of wonder, of possiblity, and I was glad to be a part of it. I'm a Pittsburgher, and a grad student at Pitt, so reading this magical story about neighborhoods I have walked through and bars where I have been shot down had a special resonance for me. The language of the novel is so rich, so beautiful, that I have read and re-read it several times. At times funny, at times tragic, at all times fascinating, it is just a magnificent book. The book is often described, for the most part accurately, as a gay coming-of-age story, and I must at this point confess that I am not gay, not even a little bit. But I still greatly enjoyed reading about the relationship of the two Arthurs, even as I hoped Art would reunite with his wonderfully bizarre Phlox. And I haven't even mentioned the force of nature named Cleveland, or Art's mobster father, or the myriad other delights of this wonderful book. Unlike so many other books written by twentysomethings, this book doesn't dwell on slacker angst or indulge in pointless diatribes about how crummy the world is. This is a book about love, about friendship, about family, and about how precious and tenuous they all are. Like I said, I'm from Pittsburgh, and I love my hometown. Pittsburgh is a bit provincial, it lacks the glamour and glitz of New York or Los Angeles. But Chabon shows that magic can happen anywhere, even in the Hillman Library at Pitt, and that the wonderful mysteries of life can be revealed in the humblest of places. Read this book, and just enjoy the journey.
on March 17, 1998
When you consider Chabon's age at the writing of this book, it becomes even more unbelievable. This is hands down the best book that I've read in the last five years; here is, finally, a concise, dramatic representation of our young generation in the full swing of hope and misery. Chabon avoids hackneyed situations, dialogue and emotions; he avoids sentimentality in its most over-used definition, but his outlook on the characters' relationships is cogent and convincing. I was left breathless by his ability to make us care for people, to show us, with a little humor, the dark sides of us all, and Chabon makes us all feel a little less ashamed of our involvement in life. He is a truly generous writer, in love with his work, and sensitive to the reader. His characters in this book represent us all, and he has, with a single first book, raised the stakes where modern writing is concerned. This book will be remembered for generations; it would be a sign of wisdom to recognize it now.
on July 1, 2001
I read this book because I am a fan, Wonder Boys and Kavalier and Clay were so good, I wanted to read what Chabon had written first, what he wrote that perhaps wasn't so good. Anybody that has read Wonder Boys and Kavalier and Clay knows that these are beautiful, near flawless books, almost impossible to critique. But here, in The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, I found it. This book has dead spots, particularly in the beginning. In fact, I nearly put it down after thirty pages. But then something happens. The characters start to cohere, the reader starts to care, and we are introduced to an improbable and amazing character named Cleveland.
This is a book about the first summer after college, an improbable time dizzying and dazzling in promised freedom, a time of bright hope for the future, when many of us decide who we will or will not be. It's also a cliche, a topic written about many times, and the kind of story that in lesser hands would make for a pretty dull book. But Chabon pulls all the tragic beauty and confusion from it. In the end, your left with a book stunning in its insight, so full of empathy that in many ways I feel it is better than it's more polished brethren. It's the kind of book a writer can only write once and I'm glad he did. I'm also glad he didn't try to do it again but rather moved on, became a polished fiction writer who relied more on his storytelling ability than past experience. I would call this book indespensible for any fan of Chabon's writing.
on March 1, 2002
Everybody has to start somewhere, and Michael Chabon, who has developed into a first class author, started out with Mysteries of Pittsburgh.
A first novel by a very young author, this book was highly acclaimed at it's release, winning several major awards, and generating accolades to Chabon that compared him to the likes of J. D. Salinger, Mark Twain and so on.
All the hype and awards might seem a bit much in retrospect, as this is not a world class novel either in terms of the writing or the concept. However, it is probably best to remember the time in which it was released-1988-and if you look at the book in the context of those times. That was a time when the fear arising from the confusion and ignorance and politicizing of AIDS were at their height, and the literati no doubt latched onto this honest and angst filled appraisal of the road to personal understanding of alternative sexuality as much for the social vales of the text as much as-if not more than-for it's intrinsic artistic value.
It's not a bad book, but the craftsmanship with words, style and execution pale compared to some of Chabon's later work. That being said, there are nevertheless long sections where the emerging talent is very much on display and the reading quite enjoyable.
I found many of the characters other than Art to be a bit too stereotypish but, then again, this is a first novel and that's not an altogether phenomenon for the first time author.
In the end I was glad I read the book. It did lead me on to other Cahbon works, and that has proven to be a very pleasant journey. My guess is that if you approach this with the expectation you are reading a first effort and don't get too bogged down in the hype and overheated reviews on both sides, you'll end up glad you gave it a go as well.
on August 19, 2003
Michael Chabon's hit the big time since he won the Pulitzer for Kavalier and Klay, but this lovely earlier book of his is also very good. Not always straightforward, sometimes confusing, often kind of depressing, always loving and charming - that's how I'd describe The Mysteries of Pittsburg. The young people populating this book are wonderfully drawn, and most of the time I felt I was being pulled right into their world as they tried to figure it out for themselves. A great little book, and a pretty fast read.
`The Mysteries of Pittsburgh' flirts with having a lot to say, but winds up saying very little for a very long time before tossing a conclusion at us that is remarkably deep and somewhat soul-shattering. It is truly a polarizing experience, and one that has me somewhat torn as to how I really feel about this book.
Having read `The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay' and absolutely loving it, I decided that I wanted to read everything that Michael Chabon wrote. He had such a knack for telling a deeply moving and complex story without ever once becoming overbearing or, at the other end of the spectrum, under-developed. I wanted to start at the beginning, and so I delved readily into `The Mysteries of Pittsburgh' because it was his debut novel; his introduction to the world. What I go was a very well written coming of age novel that felt oddly barren in parts only to come full circle in the final chapter with something I didn't see coming (emotionally).
The story told is that of Art; son of a gangster and seeking his own independence from all relative sources. Art is spending the summer in Pittsburgh where he quickly falls into an odd circle of individuals who all make a significant impact on the emotionally fragile young man. There is Phlox, the strange yet alarmingly affectionate young woman who loathes homosexuality. There is Arthur, the homosexual freeloader who desires to convert Art. And then there is Cleveland, the `rebel without a cause' who subjects all in his presence to his wildly provocative schemes. All three are drawn to Art for various reasons, most of which differ wildly from those of the next person. As Art becomes acquainted with and, in turn infatuated with these people, the looming question of his relationship with his father and his deceased mother crowd in on his decisions, and his fluctuating sexual impulses begin to wreak havoc on his dating life.
As the novel progresses it certainly feels as though there is no actual progression, which is by and large the novel's sorest spot. It just consists of various situations that don't really help develop the characters too much. Some will beg to differ, and I can see where some may draw development from the proceedings, but they seemed highly unnecessary and unfruitful to me on so many fronts. The characters, while detailed, seemed uninteresting. It wasn't until the final chapter, where Chabon takes a step away from the interactions to actually explain Art's personal evaluation of his relationships that they all seem to come together in a way that makes fluid sense. That final chapter is genius, and it made me appreciate the novel in a way I did not before that. Sadly, getting there is not always the most impressive ride available.
In the end I can say that this is a `good' book, but it lacks the consistency and the integrated emotional connection that Chabon's most acclaimed novel contained.
There is a coldness here that reminds me of `Catcher in the Rye', another coming of age novel that didn't rest as well with me as it has with so many critics.
on September 10, 2001
Chabon's first novel perfectly embodies the sharp wit and developing writing style of Michael Chabon. I had read a few of his stories, but this was the first novel of his I have read and I am a new Chabon fan.
The book has been called a "coming of age" novel, and the bookjacket has comparisons, which I suppose are apropos, of Fitzgerald's "This Side of Paradise." But while Fitzgerald's book can get a little tiresome and stodgy, with the author periodically stopping to show off his writing talents at the expense of his story, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is always a fun, enjoyable read that the reader can effectively breeze through.
Narrator Art Bechstein is recently graduated from college, a likeable, educated but unmotivated guy who takes a job at a dreary bookstore and waits to see what the summer after his graduation has in store for him. Going back to the school library to finish some work necessary to get his degree, he catches the eye of Phlox, an oddly-named girl with overdone makeup and dress but who has a certain attractive charm. He also soon meets Arthus Lecomte, a young gay man who wants to be a foreign diplomat, and who has a knack for getting housesitting jobs. Soon he is in a convertible with Arthur and the cheerful Mohammed, driving too fast in a small convertible that Art is careful not to fall out of, on their way to a party that effectively kicks off the action of the novel.
The entire novel takes place in the course of the summer after Art's graduation, and there is a sense that the events of those few months will define Art as a person - his relationship with his gangster father, his ambiguous sexuality, and his relationship with the troubled and fascinating character Cleveland are all put to the test. Without giving away too much of the plot, I was surprised by many of the plot turns and got very wrapped up in the characters, all of whom I thought were well-developed by Chabon.
Perhaps the greatest joy in reading the novel to me was humor and dead-on accuracy of the observations and descriptions interspersed throughout the book. One reviewer hit the nail on the head when he said there was a precious little nugget of wit or wisdom on every page. When describing the soulless bookstore where he takes a summer job, Boardwalk Books, narrator Art tells us the owners have no interest in the books they are peddling, that it is just "merchandise" to them, and he imagines conversations between the owners along the lines of "What are we going to do with all these books?" You can imagine an antiseptic Book Warehouse, with fifty copies of Vanna White's autobiography or the latest John Grisham thriller stacked to the ceiling. When Art is inside quirky Phlox's apartment, with its crude cat sculpture and its cheap French prints, he decides to rejoice in its bad taste, like bowling alleys and Elvis.
Chabon has a keen eye and a skill at storytelling which shines through on every page of this very successful debut novel.
on January 5, 2014
The story of an unlikable narcissist discovering bi/homosexuality along with his Manic Pixie girlfriend, and his unbearably annoying friends. The pretentiousness is off the charts. Pretty much nothing happens until the last 20 pages, by which point I ended up disliking every character so much that I was begging the book to end.
Or maybe it's brilliant, I don't know.
on July 24, 2014
The words come together like a satin zipper and I love the idea and genius of the cloud factory. Unfortunately, the characters are pathetic and boring. I didn't believe them and I didn't care about them--especially when they did outrageous things that didn't make sense for anyone. Cleveland was too young to be who he was. And, I don't believe that men can reach the age of 22 without knowing their sexual orientation.
At the end of the book Bechstein departs Pittsburgh and the country for Europe. There is nobody in Pittsburgh that he could or would talk with from thousands of miles away, yet he knows who was at the funeral and how they looked. Something is wrong there.
I haven't read any other books by Chabon and not sure I want to. There's a lot of competition out there.
on January 12, 2000
What a great, fun piece of modern fiction.
This coming-of-age-at-23 story is fabulous for those disenfranchised by education, doomed to be witty, sharp-dressed cocktail party filler, but it is also fabulous for anyone who knows Pittsburgh.
I am a bit hesitant to classify it as Gen X fiction (which is inevitably self-conscious and tedious), but it does conform to some of the hallmarks of said genre: struggle for identity (including but not limited to struggle with sexual preference issues), disillusionment with capitalist endeavours, the death of idealism, the uselessness of designer education for anything but droll coffeehouse chat, etc. etc. But this novel, much like the works of Douglas Coupland who coined the "Gen X"phrase and fiction genre, transcends the usual trappings of post-adolescent identity dramas, due largely to the 3-dimensional nature of his protagonist.
I also like that this novel isn't afraid to show emotion. To much of this genre is trying so hard to be ironic that emotion is subverted into some temper tantrum. Here, though, Art (protagonist) goes through a realistic and normal array of emotion which allows the reader an "in" to the story. It makes the supporting characters more real by extension, even though they have many ephemeral qualities.
Aside from the fine characterization, this book is rich with landscape, and that is also a great strength. The nooks and crannies of Pittsburgh are described richly and with loving affection, and this not only grounds the story, but makes the city serve in the plot and character of the novel. (Like Hardy's heath, so is Chabon's Oakland...sort of.) Now, admittedly, I am a Pittsburgh native, so I found restaurants, libraries, museums, and street corners both missed and familiar, but I think the power of Chabons's love for the great (and underappreciated!) city would play to a less biased reader.
This is also a quick, nice read, maybe for an airplane or a long wait. I found that it was a very engrossing story, and time flew when I was reading it. Strongly recommended.