Sunday, October 21, 2012

A Weekend Can Change Your Life: A Review of Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys

Title: Wonder Boys
Author: Michael Chabon
Edition: Paperback (Picador USA, 1995)
Pages: 368
How I Came By This Book: I watched the film first without even realizing that it was a book (which so often happens) and liked it so much that I wanted to read the novel.

(Photo: Sophie Bassouls/Corbis)
About the Author: Michael Chabon (b. 1963) is an acclaimed and bestselling author whose works include the Pulitzer Prize–winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000). Chabon achieved literary fame at age twenty-four with his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988), which was a major critical and commercial success. He then published Wonder Boys (1995), another bestseller, which was made into a film starring Michael Douglas. One of America’s most distinctive voices, Chabon has been called “a magical prose stylist” by the New York Times Book Review, and is known for his lively writing, nostalgia for bygone modes of storytelling, and deep empathy for the human predicament. (from GoodReads)

Synopsis: Grady Tripp is a middle-aged philanderer with a penchant for pot and failed marriages, who is unable to complete the long-awaited follow-up to his award-winning novel. His brilliant student James Leer is a troubled young writer obsessed with Hollywood suicides and prone to fabrication and petty thievery. In their odyssey through the streets of Pittsburgh, Grady and James are joined by Grady's pregnant mistress, his hilariously bizarre editor and an achingly beautiful student lodger. The result is a wildly comic, poignantly moving and ultimately profound search for past promises, future fame and a purpose to Grady's life.

Review: As I said up above, I saw the film first. I think that in the case of Wonder Boys that's okay. I might review the film at some point in the near future, so all that I'll say now is that the film and the book are so similar that, with only a few major differences, they're basically the same. I would still recommend both reading the book and watching the movie because, frankly, Wonder Boys has become one of my favorite books and one of my favorite films. But today, we'll talk about the book.

Chabon's prose teeter-totters between funny, profound, beautiful, and stark. The novel is well-paced, with only a few digressions into the past, and is bursting with human characters that suck you into a rather complicated plot. Let's see if I can explain this simply:

Tripp is a pot-smoking professor whose editor, Terry Crabtree, is coming into town to look at his latest manuscript. The problem is that, after seven years and over 2,000 pages, Tripp still hasn't finished writing it. His wife, Emily, has just left him because she found out that he was sleeping with Sara Gaskell, the Chancellor of the college for which he works. But what neither Emily nor the Chancellor's husband know is that Sara is pregnant with Tripp's baby. But wait, there's more. James Leer, Tripp's depressive writing student with the mysterious home life, throws his life into even more chaos when he kills Sara's dog to stop him from attacking Tripp. Now Tripp is traveling around the streets of Pittsburgh with James Leer in the passenger's seat and a dead dog in the trunk. The cops are looking for James, some guy is looking for Tripp's car, and, oh yeah, his student lodger, Hannah, is sort of in love with him. Throw in a beautiful transvestite, a trip to Tripp's ex-wife's house for Passover, and a whole lot of mixed signals and you have one of the funniest, most confusing, and ultimately life-changing weekends ever. Yeah, that's right. All of this happens over three days.

Chabon is amazing at juggling these interwoven plot threads and does so while creating rich and unique characters that you instantly identify with. Tripp, James, and Crabtree are three of the most memorable characters that I've encountered, but Chabon's whole cast is so much fun to read about. The characters are realistic and absurd, endearing and morally reprehensible. Because I had seen the movie first, I saw a lot of the characters as the actors who had portrayed them, but the casting was phenomenal so in this case it wasn't a hindrance to enjoying the book.

The dialogue is snappy and funny and moves the book along rather than weighing it down. Chabon is a terrific writer who brings Pittsburgh, a city that I know and love, to life. Tripp's first-person narration allows the reader to get inside his head, to live the weekend with him with no idea of what's coming next. We feel his anguish, confusion, embarrassment, and frustration. When he fails, we fail; when he triumphs, we triumph.

There were a few parts that dragged a little, mostly having to do with the second novel that Tripp has been attempting to write for years. These bits are a sort of satirical look at literary fiction and writers in general and don't take away from the novel all that much.

I'm giving Wonder Boys 4 out of 5 stars.


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