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Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon

By WhatBenWatches | Books | August 26, 2009 |

By WhatBenWatches | Books | August 26, 2009 |

I really really really really want to like Wonder Boys the movie more than I actually do. It’s about writing (which I love), it has gay characters (why wouldn’t I love it?), one of said gay characters is played by Robert Downey, Jr. (who I really like), he’s in his underwear for some of the movie (RDJ is hot!), it takes place over a weekend where it’s super drizzly and cloudy out (LOVE this kind of weather), it’s super pretentious and literary (like me!), and it has a lot of actors I really like in it (like Frances McDormand, Michael Douglas, aforementioned RDJ, and Katie Holmes - back when we had NO idea she’d end up where she is today!).

But the movie kinda fell flat for me. Oh well, it happens: dust yourself off and move on. I tried my hand at the book because I’d heard nothing but great things about it (though that sort of recommendation didn’t work out with Chabon’s last that I read: The Mysteries of Pittsburgh), and because I was curious to see how things differed in the book from the movie. Like I said: a lot of the raw ingredients were there for me to really like this story, but the movie couldn’t coalesce these together in a way that resonated with me.

In fact, the book is quite like On Chesil Beach, a book I adore and am now required, it seems, to use as a comparison to every book I read from here on out. But it’s applicable here, I swear! Namely, in that both books seem to drag on for an inordinate amount of time but then blindside you with the catharsis and reasoning behind all that meandering. With On Chesil Beach, this was so effective because the book is essentially novella-length and this meandering doesn’t go on too terribly long, simply long enough for effect. In Wonder Boys, though, the biggest problem is that the book is clearly novel-length, and there comes a point where you just want Chabon to start putting the pieces together. Luckily, he eventually does, but he takes too long to get there.

Wonder Boys chronicles a weekend in the life of Grady Tripp, creative writing professor at some liberal arts college in Pittsburgh. He’s in the midst of a 2,700-page-plus follow-up to his mildly successful last novel and his editor Terry Crabtree is in town to read a first draft of it, as well as for Wordfest that the college is hosting for the weekend. Shenanigans of course ensue, involving the accidental shooting of a dog, stealing baseball memorabilia, the pregnancy of Tripp’s lover, the kidnapping of one of Tripp’s students, a transvestite, a tuba, copious amounts of pot, a brood of adopted Korean Jews, etc.

Actually, typing all that out, it sounds like the book should be a mess. And it totally isn’t. So kudos on Chabon for keeping it all cohesive. But the book drags, namely in the middle chunk of the book, wisely excised from the movie because it has absolutely no bearing on anything, where Tripp and his student James go to a Shabbat dinner with Tripp’s extended family. The whole time I couldn’t help but think “we get it Michael Chabon: you’re Jewish.” Chabon gives minor narrative justification for this chunk towards the conclusion of the novel (hint: it’s all very very meta), but that doesn’t fly for me.

Chabon does wrap things up, though, and he does so quite effectively. Tripp is essentially an adolescent doofus stuck in a middle-aged man’s body and to have him as first-person narrator for so damned long becomes frustrating. You want to shake this guy and tell him to grow the fuck up. He finally comes to this realization, and it’s to Chabon’s credit that this happens in the narrative at the exact moment when you’re ready to give up on the book. There’s certainly more method to Chabon’s madness than in Pittsburgh (which only festers in my memory the more distance I get from it); while it helps this time around to at least get what Chabon’s going for, it still doesn’t add up to a truly great novel. A good one, yes, but not a great one.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. For more of WhatBenWatches’ reviews, check out his blog, A Good Talk or Pancakes.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

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