On one dark night, though by no means his darkest, Grady Tripp, a writer-in-residence at a Pennsylvania college, finds himself trying to accommodate in his decrepit Ford Galaxie, among other things:
A stash of assorted drugs belonging to Grady's editor, who has come to harass him about his bogged-down novel, currently running at 2,600 pages.
A tuba belonging to Miss Sloviak, the editor's transvestite companion.
James, a suicidal writing student whose derringer Grady has just confiscated.
The corpse of a large dog, just shot by the student and belonging to Grady's English department chairman, whose wife is the college chancellor and Grady's longtime lover.
Marilyn Monroe's fur-trimmed jacket; the one she wore to marry Joe diMaggio.
"That's a big trunk," placidly observes James, a veritable Charybdis of neediness and certain sucking death to any small craft in the vicinity. "It fits a tuba, four suitcases, a dead dog and a garment bag almost perfectly."
Grady Tripp's craft is not really small. He is shambling and overweight; and James' baleful helplessness is only one of the ordeals that take him apart in this comic odyssey until, like Ulysses, he finally gets reassembled and comes to rest.
Ulysses gloried in his guile and, with a stretch, you could say it was just this that unleashed the wrath of Neptune and sent him on his plaguey journey. Grady's hubris is of another kind. Chabon's beguiling and wickedly smart novel invokes the nameless deity--quite as inventive with torments as Neptune--that punishes a writer's ego and pretensions.
"Wonder Boys" is the title of the endless exfoliating yawp with which Grady has come to grief. On the strength of early work, he won critical praise, a large advance and block--the excess of his academic niche. Now he suffers not from writer's compunction that dams up an excess of pride--but its opposite. His dam is blown. He has no trouble at all writing. He can do 40 pages before breakfast. The mechanism has slipped, it processes only air, it meets none of the resistance of real material, it is nothing but the writer's will; and it is worthless.
Dimly, Grady realizes it. For him, this is lucky and unlucky: the first because it will allow him, after his ordeals, to come to a kind of balance; the second because the ordeals are so painful and humiliating. For us, as readers, it is simply lucky. Chabon's "Wonder Boys," so different from Grady's, knows its limits and how to transcend them. Without a quiet germ of doubt, Grady's picaresque adventures would be travels, not with but of a donkey. As it is, the obnoxious Grady keeps stumbling back into our sympathy. There is first-rate satirical farce in Chabon's novel but essentially it is something rarer: satirical comedy.
Grady's life has been floating in a haze of the tenured untenable. If his novel is a mess, no one knows it, and his publishers have been indulgent; so has the English department. He treats his marriage to Emily, a Korean orphan brought up as an American Orthodox Jew--Chabon frequently pulls a chair out from under us; we are perfectly OK on the floor--with convenient miniaturization. He is engaged in a lusty five-year affair with Sara, the chancellor of his college. He plugs up his existential gaps with Baggies of pot, and the reassuring prospect that sooner or later he will succumb to Hannah, his best and prettiest writing student.
His unraveling starts at the beginning and moves steadily forward. The English department is putting on Wordfest, an inflated literary conference that attracts authors, publishers, students and foundation grants. Crabtree, Grady's decadent and sinuous editor, is invited; his acceptance includes the veiled threat that he means to see the novel. (In a panic, Grady writes five different endings.)
Emily, having finally learned of his affair, goes home to her adoptive parents' farm. Sara announces that she is pregnant and wonders, with fearsome tentativeness, whether it is time for them to make some decisions. Hannah, with Emily gone, presses her availability. And James, whose campy melodramatic writing, based exclusively on Hollywood movies, is viciously mocked by his fellow students, seems about to come apart.
Grady flees briefly to his in-laws for Passover dinner, counting firmly on their warm welcome (which he gets) and vaguely on Emily's forgiveness (which he doesn't). He has James in tow after a series of farcical fireworks that ended in the car-loading scene described at the start. Passover is a disaster; when he returns to the college the disasters multiply. Before they are over, Grady has lost his marriage, his job, his car, his editor (who drops him for James, with whom he foresees a trendy success and achieves a sexual one), his manuscript and his delusions.
It is a happy ending, nevertheless, and only partly because Sara, whom the disasters have stripped of her own job and marriage, is such a sympathetic figure to end up with. It is, in a way, the heart and strength of Chabon's writing that he can treat his characters as farcically as Kingsley Amis--"Wonder Boys" has some of "Lucky Jim's" gift for pyramiding horrors and hilarity--while giving some of them emotional stature, and doing it without either sentimentalizing the farce or abridging the stature.
Crabtree is a plain creep. James is something more, a dangerous innocent, half-plaintive for his starved experience of life as a series of Hollywood classics, and half-scary. Chabon treats him with appalled affection, makes him very funny, and dismisses him coolly. At the end, under Crabtree's lecherous sponsorship, he writes one modestly praised book and gets to appear in an Esquire layout of writers modeling sweaters.
The account of Grady's Passover visit to Emily's family is a near-miracle of strain, anger, subtlety and tenderness. Her father and mother winningly fend off details about the ins and outs of the marriage; they only want it to go on. Painfully inhibited, Emily is expressive in her muteness. There is a sister whose own pain and rage precipitate an awful, comical explosion--through all of which James sits, as wackily absent as a space alien. The finest extended scene in the book, it presents a set piece of a fierce and delicate complexity: A family comes apart on the occasion for coming together.
Sara, outwardly frumpish and efficient, is a lovely volcano. With her oatmeal tweeds, odd shoes, many-buttoned blouses and red hair subjugated in a shrapnel of pins, combs and barrettes, "undressing her was always an act of recklessness, a kind of vandalism like releasing a zoo full of animals or blowing up a dam." As for Grady, his blindness and self-indulgence--all of which will be paid for and perhaps redeemed--can be tedious but they never entirely put us off. It's not just that he is aware of his defects, but that his awareness is so well-spoken. Early on, when Sara tries to get him to tell her what he really wants, he is at a loss: "I searched my feelings, an activity never far removed from looking for a dead rat in a spidery crawl space under the house."
Appearing at the same time as William Gass' immense and long-worked-over "The Tunnel"--a writer, isolated in his own consciousness, tries to dig out--Chabon's book could almost be a parody. (Certainly, it arouses thoughts of Harold Brodkey and Thomas Pynchon.) It does not go as deep, perhaps, but it is better lighted and--a sovereign virtue in a tunnel--it comes out the other side.