This Generations Updike

The discreet charms of Michael Chabon

You have every right to hate Michael Chabon. One of the first stars to come out of UC Irvine's master of fine arts program, his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh—which is disarmingly innocent in observation, effortlessly sophisticated in style—was a best-seller when he was 24. (He came in under the media radar that picked up on the holy trinity of hip '80s fiction—Jay McInerney, Bret Easton Ellis and Tama Janowitz—but he was better than any of them.) His short stories, including "Ocean Avenue," which is set in Laguna Beach and one of the best stories ever written about Orange County, are regularly published in The New Yorker. He writes pellucid, elegant sentences in the Fitzgerald/Salinger/Updike tradition:they're mellifluous and classically shaped, with internal tensions and rhythms that make coming to the end of them a kind of structural pleasure, like following a long musical phrase by Brahms or watching a piece of clay emerge from a spinning pottery wheel into its Platonic shape. If that's not enough, you can always resent his sensibility, which is unusually mature, empathic, warm and attendant to his characters' vulnerabilities, yet always saved from sentimentality by sly humor and carefully turned paradoxes. His is a sensibility that patiently understands—better than you do, better than your friends do. You'd really like to have him as your best friend, in fact—the bastard. To top it off, he is beautiful to look at, with extravagantly lashed eyes; a sculpted, intelligent nose; sexily cascading hair; and a hyperannoying awareness in his face that says these looks, nice as they are, really don't mean a damn thing.

Your resentment may not recede much if you read his new collection of short stories, Werewolves in Their Youth. His sentences have more luster than ever, and the stories go a layer or two deeper than the stories from his previous collection, A Model World and Other Stories. (There's also another novel, The Wonder Boys, which I haven't read.) There's getting to be something gratingly unimpeachable about Michael Chabon's work. He not only writes New Yorker-type stories, full of those tasteful refinements and aesthetic blandishments that piss off decent readers everywhere, but he also writes good New Yorker-type stories, those that unsettle you with a sudden depth charge of suffering or a surprising bit of sexual humor and make you realize he hasn't succumbed entirely to the safe pleasures of the "well-made story." Writing remains discovery for him, although (I'm proud and relieved to have discovered) this golden boy has his limits.

Werewolves in Their Youth takes shape as a kind of Boomer/Gen X chronicle (Chabon himself straddles the two generations), beginning with the sadly whimsical title story about a grammar school boy's friendship with a very odd neighbor boy who thinks he's a werewolf and taking us through some of the familiar markers of middle-class life: young marriage, romantic and sexual failure, divorce, thirtysomething desperation, second chances in love and career, etc. Like the other stories in the collection, the title story isn't really about what it seems to be about: as Chabon explores the boys' weird little friendship, truth keeps breaking in and eventually comes down hard on the touchingly wobbly way the poor schoolboy is handling his parents' divorce.

Similarly, "House Hunting" isn't really about a yuppie couple looking to buy a house, but rather about a yuppie couple looking to save their dried-up marriage. Pretty soon, you learn how to read Chabon:the daintily rendered realistic surfaces all hide calm bourgeois masks, and the stories are about penetrating those masks to the scared, confused, shamed faces beneath. For instance, after 20 pages of "House Hunting," which gives us a brittle, sex-dead couple desperately trying to save themselves by making the commitment gesture of looking for a house, the couple fuck almost violently and certainly cathartically on a stranger's bed, hoping the real-estate guy won't come in to interrupt. And when it's over, Chabon gives us this: "Marriage was at once a container for the madness between men and women and a fragile hedge against it, as religion was to death, and the laws of physics to the immense quantity of utter emptiness of which the universe was made. But there was nothing at all safe about marriage. It was a doubtful enterprise, a voyage in an untested craft across a hostile ocean, with a map that was forgery and with no particular destination but the grave."

These narrative perorations come frequently in Chabon's stories, beautifully phrased "what-have-we-learned" morals that are insightful and "true" but also a little bland, especially when he flogs a metaphor like the "voyage" one here. Other stories, like "Son of the Wolfman," which is about a married woman who is raped and decides to have the resulting baby, and "Green's Book," which is about a divorced father who goes to a party only to encounter a woman whom he almost—but didn't—sexually molested as a child, are more powerful, with Chabon layering in the moral ambiguities and making the final, perhaps too-expected note of oracularity less bold statement than tense, vivid ambivalence. "Son of the Wolfman" ends with the raped woman's husband looking into the "pupilless gaze" of his newborn son, wondering if the "same uneven progression of disaster and contentment" that is his own life will also be his son's. And "Green's Book" ends with the divorced father taking a bath with his young daughter, realizing for the first time how his early forbidden sexual impulses have kept him from loving his daughter enough.

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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