Small Wonder

THE STORIES IN Michael Chabon’s second collection, Werewolves in their Youth, showcase his prodigious talents and touch on his major concerns–hope, loneliness, and the powers of the imagination. His work here is stronger and more sure-footed than ever, and fans of his novels The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988) and the more recent Wonder Boys (1995) will be left satisfied and asking for more.

Werewolves, like his earlier fiction, follows the uncertain fortunes of a number of young men–first, in the title story, in retrospect, the narrator looking back at his childhood, and then later through a series of disillusioned twenty- and thirty-somethings, divorcees and the more helpless halves of several unhappy couples separated from whatever wholeness they once imagined for themselves. While the settings for these stories range from the Pacific Northwest down to L.A., the emotional geography is reminiscent of Raymond Carver’s territory, or possibly, in its insistence on a brighter, now faded past, John Updike’s.

Chabon starts after the worst has happened. In “House Hunting,” Daniel Diamond and Christy Kite’s marriage has gone dull and sad, and they’re hoping a new location may help. In “Son of the Werewolf,” Richard Case’s wife Cara is carrying her rapist’s child. Both couples try to find some way to overcome their obvious troubles, and in doing so, find themselves on strange ground.

This is true throughout the collection. Whether in search of a way out of a bad situation or attempting to redress the sins of the past, Chabon’s heroes are making an effort, sometimes despite themselves, and rarely with confidence or conviction. For if his people are hopeful, they’re also doubtful, burned once too often by their old high hopes, and unwilling to fall back into their earlier, unearned idealism.

There’s an unwillingness to face the truth as well, or to tell it to another. Innocence is no longer possible, and that’s a problem for these young lovers. Naturally, having been hurt, their hearts are elusive, and more often than not they’re going to miss that one last connection with goodness, if only out of timidity.

But while they often fail and then dwell on it, Chabon himself doesn’t give in to any easy or bland despair. His sense–and theirs–of how absurd the world is is never far from the surface. He’s genuinely funny throughout, and necessarily so. There’s a thrilling goofiness in descriptions like “Her brassiere was engineered like a suspension bridge, armor plated, grandmotherly,” and a few stories, like the zany “The Harris Fetko Story” and “In the Black Mill,” the Lovecraft homage that closes the book, are plain silly fun.

This is a wide-ranging collection in terms of tone if not truly of character, and Chabon’s eye and ear are like Updike’s–they covet the world. And the language! In all four of his books, Chabon has proved himself one of those rare writers who can blow even the most demanding reader away with a seemingly offhand phrase or observation. His sense of metaphor, like his contemporary Rick Moody’s, is playful, even lavish at times. There’s nothing timid or minimal about his writing, yet–at its best–it’s seldom overdone or overbearing. There’s a delicacy as well as sheer abundance here, a high-style elegance reminiscent of Cheever or even Fitzgerald.

Chabon shares their luminous view of people horribly lost in the middle of what sometimes seems like paradise and the extraordinary measures they must take to regain their own best selves, if that’s still possible. One might say lost promise is Chabon’s subject. The finest moments in Werewolves come when his heroes cross that imaginary line from despair back into the dangerous territory of hope. It’s a giddy feeling, and if “That Was Me” is finally a little thin, and the endings of “Son of the Wolfman,” “Mrs. Box,” and “Spikes” are just too perfect and precise, O. Henry like in their one-line irony, it’s forgivable.

Even more so since Chabon amply rewards the reader in the end with a full-blown, sumptuously done tribute to and parody of H.P. Lovecraft. Ostensibly penned by August Van Dorn, aka Albert Vetch, boarder at the fleabag hotel run by the grandmother of Grady Tripp, novelist-protagonist of Chabon’s last novel Wonder Boys, “In the Black Mill” takes place in the misted Yuggogheny Hills and is filled with sly allusions to the master’s work. It sounds fluffy, a slight idea, and yet, like John Irving ghosting Garp’s “The Pension Grillparzer,” Chabon applies himself in earnest, and the end result is possibly the best story in the collection.

Chabon received his undergraduate degree from Pitt before heading west and writing the bestselling Mysteries of Pittsburgh. While none of the stories in Werewolves is set in Pittsburgh, Chabon’s storytelling is fuller and more satisfying than in the Squirrel Hill stories of A Model World (1991), and he does find time to fit in nods to Bruno Sammartino, Joe Magarac and Roberto Clemente.

Those are just icing for local folks. Werewolves in their Youth is already a pleasure without them, leaving readers looking forward to his next book while savoring this one. After Mysteries of Pittsburgh, as a suddenly famous and very young writer, Michael Chabon was saddled with the burden of promise and he’s worked hard since then to fulfill those impossible expectations. May it always be so.

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