I read The Catcher in the Rye in Grade 11 and didn't really see what all the hype was about. I kind of liked it, but I read it as a modern reader would, not as someone who perhaps understand the time it was published and, therefore, what made it seem radical. I was bored by On the Road, too, although perhaps I ought to reread both of these books now that I know more about them both. The reason I even bring these books up is because they're what The Mysteries of Pittsburgh are compared to. Why, considering my dislike for both those books did I pick up Michael Chabon's debut novel? I don't know. But reading it has made me reconsider my previous judgments.
The Mysteries of Pittsburgh was written in the late '80s, but set in the early '80s. I was born in '86, so admittedly the 1980s in general are not lodged in my memory as much more that occasional scenery and memories of toys or visiting my new baby sister in the hospital. However, it is a timeframe I understand. Normally, besides where neon and technology are concerned, it doesn't seem like we're all that far removed from that decade; sure, things have changed, but nothing fundamental. Except, of course, for AIDS. And gay rights. The entire way we talk about sex, actually, has changed quite a lot, although that's easy to take for granted. What has any of this got to do with Chabon's novel? Rather a lot.
The book opens right at the end of Art's last semester in university. Summer is beckoning, but he has one last paper to write, so he goes to the library. There, he catches the eye of one of the girls working in customer service, and that of a guy about his own age who's also finishing something up. The guy, as it turns out, is also named Arthur. Arthur is gay – he's too well dressed not be, Art says – and when he casually invites Art out for a drink, Art wonders what do to: assert his straightness? say no? say yes and not worry? As Art and Arthur become friends, and Arthur pulls him into his fanciful and interesting group of friends, Art's insecurity with his own sexuality quickens. He starts dating Phlox, the girl from the library, and although they have copious amounts of sex, she too seems worried by his friendship with Arthur. In fact, to 21st century eyes, her homophobia is shocking in its directness. "It's wrong," she tells Art of Arthur's proclivities; "It's disgusting."
But Art is steadily falling in love with Arthur. Initially it's that kind of emotion that sometimes springs up between new and unexpected friends, where one idolizes the other: Art admires Arthur's clothes, his friends, his willingness to have fun. On the other side, Arthur has one of those unfortunate crushes on Art, one he believes cannot be requited, however much he desires it. When disaster strikes – in the form of Art's mobster dad and Arthur's friends Cleveland, and entire other, compelling storyline, that is too much to get into here – it is to Arthur Art turns, not to Phlox.
There are a lot of novels so filled with sex that the descriptions become banal, verging on ridiculous. Chabon mitigates that by not going into detail, but rather flitting around the edges with enough leading imagery that what is going to happen is left up to your own imagination, and you do not have to be gay to understand the anxiety and excitement of what is a scene about someone losing his virginity and then discovering a whole wonderful world of sex. Writing about gay sex now seems, in some contexts, edgy; writing about two men in their early 20s, one of whom may be just experimenting, having sex in the early '80s kind of floors you, especially when you realize that there is no discussion of condoms or being careful. This is gay sex before AIDS, something free and dangerous only because of the way people might treat you if they knew.
I really should say, though, that there is a whole lot more to this book than sex or sexuality. Above all, it's about what happens during that summer after you finish school. For a lot of people, Art included, it's like a freebie. School has finished, and with it the responsibilities of class and essays and tuition, but real life, adulthood, doesn't really start until September. That leaves four months in which you can be whatever you want – no longer a student, not yet an adult with a 9-5. Art works at a crappy bookstore, much to his father's disapproval, and he has an entirely new and interesting group of friends, anchored by Arthur and his childhood best friend Cleveland.
I do not typically gravitate toward novels about 'the one summer that changed everything' because I often find them cliché or forced, but The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is so sincere and self-aware that I didn't even notice myself falling in with Art's new group of friends, but of course, that's what happens. For 300 pages you're new to the group too, a kind of confidante who gets to know it all. I think, looking back, that I didn't like The Catcher in the Rye or On the Road because I never felt like the characters needed me to be there, or maybe that they would have rathered I wasn't there; Art, though, gives the distinct impression that he needs to tell his story in order to make sense of it, and in doing so it becomes, to a degree, your story too.
The Mysteries of Pittsburgh
by Michael Chabon
First published in 1988 (cover image shown from Harper Perennial edition)