It was an odd experience to re-read The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. When I first read it I was a sophomore in college, and for some reason that age made me particularly receptive to Michael Chabon’s coming-of-age story, especially the way he handled the messy entanglements of young love and friendship, the intricate dance between parent and (nearly) grown child. I distinctly remember being struck by how real these characters felt, their uncertainty toward the future and how their own place in it might take shape. There was something almost glamorous about the group of young twentysomethings, how they tore aimlessly through a summer of sex and love, discovering pieces of themselves along the way as if by accident.
Reading it that first time, I told myself that this is how it would be in that interim period after graduation—I would float and wander, have a lot of sex, be somehow revealed to myself. Well now I’m twenty-three, and am almost a year removed from graduation, yet strangely the book was much less revelatory this time around. I was still just as impressed by Chabon’s precise control over his graceful prose, the lyricism of his descriptions, and his sharply keen observation of human foibles—all of which are only more impressive when you remember he was just twenty-four when he wrote the book. But the characters no longer felt like people I have or could ever know. Their interactions were too often stilted, overly formal, or simply theatrical. The sexual flip-flopping did not feel liberating or progressive, as it once had, but merely indulgent. It was hard to tell if it was the book or me that had changed.
To quickly summarize: the protagonist is Art Bechstein, son of a Pittsgurgh gangster and recent college graduate. He’s determined to spend a summer doing nothing but cherishing and celebrating his youth. He works during the day at a loathsome chain bookstore and then spends his nights in the company of a revolving cast of characters—people with whom he falls in love, sleeps with, drinks with, and is generally intrigued or awed by. Art notes their mannerisms and utterances as if to try on different roles later himself. These friends appear to him to be filled with a vibrancy or hopeful promise, something that he must grab hold of and consume. Of course, hard truths are learned along the way. Adulthood looms.
I’m a huge fan of Chabon’s; in fact, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is probably my favorite book. You can clearly see in this book, his debut novel, the writer that he would become—there’s not just an assured style but also a genuine and warm affection for his characters. Perhaps the reason I felt less for these Pittsburgh characters upon a second reading was because I’m now in their shoes, am now also wandering and hoping to be dazzled by the promise of what comes next, and so am less patient with their missteps (even as I seek to avoid them myself). The book meanders and skates over some rough patches for much of its length, before arriving at a conclusion that is startling in its profundity. So perhaps the book nails youth better than I originally gave it credit for. In any case, if I come back to The Mysteries of Pittsburgh in a decade or more, I’m sure it will affect me differently yet again. I’ll probably be struck with an intense feeling of nostalgia and remember what it was like to put off the future for a summer, what it was like to yearn for recklessness.