This Generations Updike

The discreet charms of Michael Chabon

This kind of fiction, which Lionel Trilling once dubbed "moral realism," has an unending usefulness, apparently, for middle-class people, who expect their serious writers to uncover the lies and hypocrisies underlying the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie without making them feel too uncomfortable in their hypocrisy. And Chabon does his work well —alas, he does it charmingly. But when a writer of ravishing verbal gifts tells you in sensitive, ever-empathic ways that your way of life is just a wee bit hypocritical and that if you don't watch out, you're going to put yourself and people you care about in a lot of pain, the message may get lost in all that felicity of expression.

It's good, then, that in the latter half of the collection, Chabon's stories mostly abandon the yuppie trappings to embrace characters who have fallen out of the middle class due to bad luck, bad judgment, or both. The stories, which call forth from Chabon a little more earthiness, remind me of Bernard Malamud, of all people (Chabon may be Jewish, but he's Jewish the way Jerry Seinfeld is Jewish): the stories are full of latter-day schlemiels shuffling through life after a barrage of comic failures, yet still holding out for that little moment of redemption that will give them back love, self-respect, success. The best of these, "The Harris Fetko Story," is about a guy toiling miserably in the North American Professional Indoor Football League, an emblem of his failure to his famous college-football coach father, from whom he's estranged. With the league threatening to go belly-up, Harry is given the chance to play professional Powerball, "an amalgam of rugby, professional wrestling and old pirate movies" that his father invented and wants to coach him in. The results are touching and hilarious. In these later stories, Chabon's tone shifts from white-bread sensitive to Jewish-shrug ironic, and it's a breath of fresh air. Any whiff of sanctimony is gone, and the comedy has a little bit of the weight of history behind it.

Chabon is one of our rock-solid storytellers of private, premillennial American life—he's got few affectations, and to be in his company for the 45 minutes it takes to read one of his leisurely tales is a real pleasure. You can fault him for being more or less oblivious to politics, for not drawing connections between private grief and larger social structures, for letting us get too comfy in the lies we tell ourselves to keep living the bourgeois ideal. But Chabon's a miniaturist, in the end, not a muralist. In the house of many windows that is fiction, Chabon's window is small but glowing.

Werewolves in Their Youth by Michael Chabon; Random House. 212 pages. $22.95, hardcover.

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