Arts » Books

The New Superman

Chabon reacts to mega-success


Michael Chabon may be a literary swan, affixed with the tag of Pulitzer Prize-winning author as well as an enviable hipness quotient, but he's never forgotten the ugly duckling years of adolescence.

At 41, he acknowledges hanging on to those uncomfortable years as a constant motivation to spur creativity and discipline. Rather than lapse into self-analysis or wallow in psychobabble, though, Mr. Chabon displays the odd but endearing alchemy inherent in his work and persona when he discusses, of all things, baseball.

During his childhood, when the Chabons lived in a Washington suburb, young Michael became a Senators fan. In 1971, when he was 8, Chabon recalls watching the Senators on TV with his dad.

"Then they were packed up in the dead of the night and shipped off to Texas and became the Rangers (in 1972)," he says. "That's one of those things, how can that be, how can they let that happen? It's like trying to explain to my children, how can an election possibly be stolen? And, of course, Texas, once again, was involved there."

Such sentiments conjure all of Chabon's sensibilities: a heart easily broken, childlike wonder, hardened adult reality and a blend of both humor and resignation. As for baseball's powers, a delightful 2002 children's novel, Summerland, allowed Chabon to create Ethan Feld, an awkward, unathletic boy who must master baseball in order to rescue the world.

Years later, the author has switched baseball affiliations a couple of times, first to the Pittsburgh Pirates and, later, the San Francisco Giants, nearer his Berkeley home. Chabon's literary career is far less checkered than his baseball romances: At 23, his thesis manuscript was sent by a professor to an agent and garnered the highest advance for a debut literary novel.

Today, he is, simply, the coolest writer in America. This month, a new novella, The Final Solution, has been published, evincing, in part, a long-acknowledged love of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's works.

The retired detective who finds himself enmeshed in an unanticipated comeback case does, indeed, favor a pipe, which belches an unpleasant smoke. Chabon writes, "It hung in the room as thick as sheepshearing and made arabesques in the harsh slanting light from the window."

At the same time, he has edited a second collection of spine-tingling short stories also published this month: McSweeney's Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories (Vintage). Contributors include Joyce Carol Oates, Stephen King, Roddy Doyle and Jonathan Lethem.

And next fall he'll deliver a new novel, The Yiddish Policeman's Union which involves, among other things, a modern-day Jewish homeland in Alaska instead of the Middle East.

As the two new titles suggest, Mr. Chabon's ambitions have taken an astonishing turn of their own in recent years. His earlier works were grounded in the traditional realms of literary fiction, focusing more on character development and observations than plot-driven fare.

His sparkling debut, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, became a best-seller, followed by another hit, Wonder Boys, a winking nod to fellow writers blessed and burdened by unanticipated early literary success. Chabon (he favors a pronunciation primer of, "Shea as in Stadium, Bon as in Jovi") took all the promise and talent of those works and melded it with a childhood passion -- comic books -- in his third novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001.

Kavalier & Clay displayed much more of Chabon's fantasy, science fiction and, yes, comic book influences alongside healthy heapings of American heavyweights spanning Poe and Melville, Faulkner and Fitzgerald.

As he gleefully points out, his desire is nothing less than annihilation of Barnes & Noble-bred barricades -- a we-are-the-word gumbo where, say, Neal Stephenson and Robert Louis Stevenson are separated by a couple of letters rather than entire sections.

The new novella is a fine display of such vision, pairing a delightful procedural with a haunting meditation on mortality. Chabon sacrifices neither pure entertainment nor literary achievement in the process.

"When the story came in last year, there was a long pause about that," says Brigid Hughes, executive editor of The Paris Review, which originally published The Final Solution in its summer 2003 issue. "He brought this whole idea of interest in the genre and genre-writing, which had traditionally been isolated from literary writing. It was brilliant."

In fact, much of his introduction in the latest McSweeney's volume fixates on the word genre itself. But, just as one begins fearing an embarrassing bout with literary pretension, Chabon's wit rescues him: "Like most people who worry about whether it's better to be wrong or pretentious when pronouncing the word genre, I'm always on the lookout for a chance to drop the name of Walter Benjamin."

During a recent speech at the Novello Festival, Chabon appears in writerly garb: rimless glasses, disheveled longish hair (replete with forelocks reminiscent of Superman's squiggles), rumpled pants topped with an olive tie and checked sport coat.

He covers Kabbalah and Captain Nemo, among many assorted topics, and tosses in the occasional self-deprecating reference to literary credentials. Of the Pulitzer Prize, Chabon says, "(It) gives a guy, however mistaken, a sense of authority."

Success makes him uneasy ("I never trust it"), but Chabon seems poised for a lengthy run of adoration from critics and readers alike.

"He's grabbing these huge issues but making them accessible at the same time," says Tina Jordan, a senior editor at Entertainment Weekly. "He's remarkably adept, for example, at combining gay and straight characters. A real mix of people populate his books. That's no small feat."

Indeed, early in his career many speculated on whether Chabon was gay. He deflected the inquiries. Married with four children, the answer soon enough became obvious.

His wife, Ayelet Waldman, a public defender turned stay-at-home mystery writer, shares car pool duties with him. In his spare time, Chabon knocks out the occasional screenplay, including a credit on last summer's Spider-Man 2.

As Spider-Man can attest, with great power comes great responsibility. In a literary sense, Chabon seems intent on fulfilling the lofty expectations set forth for him.

Most days, he writes for several hours at a stretch at his home, usually sandwiched around time with his four young children and a daily jog through the neighborhood. He says creative inspiration is a myth and frets over being discovered as beneath the many lavish reviews and jacket blurbs.

"There's always a voice in my head saying, "Oh, what do they know? They don't know the real you, the total reject.' You're alone in your office with your computer and the praise doesn't help you."

In the same vein, Chabon acknowledges his gratitude and good fortune, but sees more pragmatism than glamour in his movie dabbling.

"I keep doing this Hollywood screenwriting work because it pays really well and because it's fun," he says. "And I get great health-care coverage through the Writers Guild."

So what does America's hottest writer think of all this cachet and impressive earning power in a field known for producing lifelong paupers? "Instead of having money," he says. "I have children. And I feed them and take care of them."

Chabon, in other words, may be a literary Superman, but he lives like Clark Kent.

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