‘The Mysteries of Pittsburgh’ by Michael Chabon

“The Mysteries of Pittsburgh” was first published back in 1988 and immediately tagged a “brat pack” novel, causing its author, the then preposterously young Michael Chabon (he was still only in his early 20s) to be spoken of in the same breath as Bret Easton Ellis, Jay McInerney and Tama Janowitz -- admirable enough writers whose careers, it’s fair to say, he has by now wholly eclipsed. Viewed in hindsight, though, “Pittsburgh” belongs to a more familiar category. It’s a coming-of-age story, and a classic in that genre, the chronicle of a single summer, a structure that Chabon, always eager to flaunt his influences rather than show any anxiety about them, borrowed, lifted (whatever), from “The Great Gatsby.”

Like “Gatsby,” “Pittsburgh” has a somewhat passive narrator whose yearnings impinge on action determined by others. Like “Gatsby,” “Pittsburgh” features friendship, betrayal thereof, closeness to the underworld and its threat of violence, and women who look good and cause trouble. Here’s the hero, Art Bechstein, encountering Jane Bellwether, at a party when she’s blotto and stands alone, bashing tennis balls. “As we clunked down the wooden steps to the quiet crunch of the grass, I watched her stroke. It was my father’s ideal: a slight, philosophical tilt to her neck, her backswing a tacit threat, her rigid exultant follow-through held for one aristocratic fraction of a second too long. She looked tall, thin and, in the bad light, rather gray in her white golf skirt and shirt. Thik! And she smiled, shaking out her yellow hair. . . . “

The charged sexuality of the moment recalls another famous first encounter, from “Goodbye, Columbus,” in which Philip Roth’s young hero meets the luscious, and seemingly out-of-reach, Brenda Patimkin: “She dove beautifully, and a moment later she was swimming back to the side of the pool, her head of short-clipped auburn hair held up, straight ahead of her, as though it were a rose on a stem.”

Fitzgerald, Roth: As a tyro, Chabon was aspiring to elevated company. Talk about chutzpah. I first read some of “Pittsburgh” even before it was published, when I was working for Granta, the English literary magazine then based above a hair salon in Cambridge and run by Bill Buford (later to become fiction editor of the New Yorker). Submissions, in those days that predated e-mail and the Web, arrived by mail or fax (sometimes Buford would conduct bandit raids on publishers’ offices in London or New York, but that’s another issue). One morning I went into work and found a new short story by Raymond Carver lying on the floor, having been spewed forth by the fax machine. They were heady days. Another time, curled up liked wood shavings, was a pile of pages which began: “At the beginning of the summer I had lunch with my father, the gangster, who was in town for the weekend to transact some of his vague business.” Somebody had sent us the first chapter of “Pittsburgh,” which, we soon learned, had just sold for a phenomenal amount of money in New York. Naturally, seeing ourselves as literary taste-makers and not slavish followers of hype, we all wanted to hate it. But, as those faxed pages went around, passed from hand to hand like candy or some drug, we realized we couldn’t. The writing was just so elegant and gorgeous, and daring.

The not-so-secret theme of “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh” is sexual identity. “There had been a time in high school, see, when I wrestled with the possibility that I might be gay, a torturous six-month culmination of years of unpopularity and girllessness. At night I lay in bed and coolly informed myself that I was gay and had better get used to it. The locker room became a place of torment, full of exposed male genitalia that seemed to taunt me with my failure to avoid glancing at them,” Art notes near the beginning of the novel. But really he’s still not sure whether he’s gay or not, and by the end of the story he’ll conclude that this lack of knowledge just doesn’t matter. The point of the journey is the exploration, and labels need not apply. In the 1980s, Chabon had been paying attention to Prince, and not only Scott and Zelda and Thomas Mann. The breadth was pretty radical.

“Pittsburgh” is a very knowing book, sensitive to the various biographical and literary impulses that produced it, and always alert, too, to its own prose, the sentences that seem to dance on the page, floating like the perfect white clouds issuing forth from the chimney of the beat-up factory that provides the book’s central image, the factory from whose roof the biker-hoodlum Cleveland will plunge to his doom.

The actor Peter Sarsgaard plays Cleveland in the recent film of the novel, written and directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber (the guy who did “Dodgeball”). That the film seems loose and episodic should come as no surprise, for “Pittsburgh” is a book that relies not on plot, or character, but on the sheer exuberance and dazzle of its own surface, on texture, on style. In search of story causation, Chabon has gone increasingly in the direction of fantasy, science-fiction, and tales of horror and detection.

It’s not fair to say that he’s retreated into genre. “The Adventures of Kavalier & Klay” was a Pulitzer Prize-winning triumph, after all, a different sort of exploration of the themes of escape and identity; but this new edition of his first novel (part of a cool new Harper Perennial series, Olive Editions, currently also featuring “Everything Is Illuminated” by Jonathan Safran Foer and Milan Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”) shows just how deft, concrete and almost Updikean this writer can be when he turns his attention to the immediacy of stuff and people, to realities and emotions that feel closer to hand.

“Cleveland and I drank until the bar closed. It was a hot night, and the ceiling fans ruffled our hair and tore the cigarette smoke into little scraps. Each bottle of Rolling Rock came to us pearled with condensation,” remembers Art, about to recall the occasion when Cleveland started reciting Frank O’Hara. “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh” has hundreds of such moments, effortless, golden, reminding us that Chabon always had the capacity to amaze; he was, and is, the wonder boy.

Richard Rayner’s Paperback Writers column appears monthly at