Monday, March 25, 2013

Wonder Boys

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Wonder Boys (Villard, 1995).

My wife does not like stories with irresponsible or unsympathetic protagonists. Now, we all are going to have different opinions as to what those adjectives mean to each of us - madly, she stopped reading the magnificent Gone Girl about a third of the way through - but I am fairly certain that the self-destructive Grady Tripp would not get any approval whatever from her. With a twinkle in my eye, however, I sort of liked how his world fell apart in one unbelievable weekend.

I came to Wonder Boys with a little apprehension. I had really enjoyed Michael Chabon's recent novel Telegraph Avenue, and started back at the beginning of his professional career and his first novel The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. I don't know when the last time I read something I hated so much was. You want to talk about unsympathetic protagonists? While I thought that I don't share the visceral reaction to such characters that my wife displays, that guy I wanted to pull out of the pages so I could bloody his nose. Maybe I just got too smitten with the female lead, but good grief, I've got no time or patience whatever for somebody's meaningful coming out story when it means the senseless destruction of a relationship I was enjoying. What an asshole.

So Wonder Boys is the story of a college professor pothead who's been working on a novel, called Wonder Boys, for many, many years and many, many revisions. His oldest friend, and editor, arrives on campus at the same time that an absurd raft of subplots are just about to collide. It is the weekend from hell. Over the course of eighty hours, Grady's marriage falls apart, his lover tells him that she's pregnant with his baby, one of his students attempts suicide, there's a writers' conference in town, a dog gets shot, one of Marilyn Monroe's sweaters gets stolen, as does Grady's car, and then another pet gets killed... and this damn novel of his, a manuscript a couple of thousand pages long, needs to be finished immediately.

I'm not saying it's in any way easy to sympathize with Grady - far from it, man alive, does this guy ever get what he's got coming - or see his comeuppance as unfortunate. But, as longtime readers of this blog know, I have a great love for situations spiraling out of control. That's why John Wagner and Ian Gibson's Robo-Hunter is my all-time favorite comic, and how nothing in the medium comes close to touching it. Like TV's Maverick, I enjoy situations that are "never serious, but always hopeless." It might have been an uncomfortable and unhappy read watching Grady's selfish and thoughtless decisions get him into this mess. Starting the action with him already over his head and things getting worse and worse is a terrific idea, and I loved watching the escalation.

It's definitely not a plot for everybody, then, but I loved the way that Chabon juggled it. I love his style and gift for language. I even love how a few happy endings somehow emerge from this catastrophe, even as the mess gets bigger and bigger. Recommended with reservations.

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