The Mysteries of Pittsburgh: A forgotten gem relevant even today
Michael Chabon’s first novel, the critically acclaimed The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, was first published in 1988, a good 15 years before the concept of my existence was even remotely conceptualised. He was also the 2001 Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.
Yet during the summer of 2010 – with a generation gap of eclectic music and outrageous hairstyles separating us – when I happened to come across a rather yellowed and withering copy of this particular novel, with one swipe of a dust cloth, 297 pages and an instant connection later, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh became my favourite book, a book I retreat to ever so often.
The book received fame, catapulted Chabon into literary glory and earned him the status of a wordsmith at a young age. However, after a low-grossing film adaptation a couple of decades later, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh soon became forgotten like a book at the end of the stack.
Set in the 80s with the city of Pittsburgh as the backdrop, Chabon began writing The Mysteries of Pittsburgh then aged 21, and an undergraduate at the University of Pittsburgh, submitted it as his Master of Fine Arts (MFA) thesis at the University of California, Irvine. The novel is a coming of an age story of confrontation and sexual identity. It is written in a first person narrative from the point of view of Art Bechstein, a recent college graduate, as he recounts the events of the first summer after finishing college.
Art is the son of a gangster. His father, Joe Bechstein, a mob man and a money launderer for a crime family in Washington, comes to Pittsburgh to hold business meeting. While in the city, he takes time out of his busy schedule of a gangster and his gangster-esque affairs to meet with his son.
Immediately, when the profession of his father becomes known from the very first sentence, we wonder,
“What does Art’s mother do? With his dad’s lifestyle, she probably divorced him a long time ago.”
The truth being, she passed away when Art was a child and it is revealed that his father, though indirectly and discreetly, holds his son responsible for his wife’s passing.
It is apparent from the beginning of the story that Art has no interest in plunging into the underworld and his father shares the same belief. But his father’s world of guns and money is a fate Art can never truly avoid. As the story progresses, Art meets characters that will pull him in the shady world of the underworld, though not necessarily the same as the one his father belongs to, reshaping his understanding of the world as he knows it.
The story officially begins when Art meets Arthur Lecomte in the university library, a depressingly charming gay young man who introduces him to the beautiful Jane Bellwether, and her on again-off again biker boyfriend, Cleveland Arning and a fellow library worker, the effervescent Phlox Lombardi who Art begins a romantic relationship with.
But as life in Pittsburgh moves forward, Art and Arthur develop an attraction towards each other and Cleveland, a fan of the Bechstein family business, plunges deeper into the world of crime. Art finds himself tangled amidst a plethora of relationships and expectations, and is forced to confront his life for what it is and come to terms with who he really is.
The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, in essence, tells a story of a young man who until the first summer after he graduates, lives vicariously through other people’s experiences. The irony of it all is that he learns to become his own person through the very same people he clung on to so dearly, for even the tiniest breath of life.
Chabon ends his wistfully spun tale of wit and intellect with teachings that more or less, we all have come to realise at one point in our lives or that, memories of people and places are but only exaggerated longings of all that we once held dear. Especially at a time when we were only beginning to discover who we really are as people.
Chabon with his exquisitely entertaining prose and his bright characters brimming with vivacity, managed to create a rather timeless piece of relatable fiction. It caters to the mind-set of not only a 20-something recent college graduate in the United States experiencing life for the first time in the 80s but even to that of a 16-year-old young girl, leading a rather uneventful life, browsing through a used book store in Karachi, 30 years later, halfway across the world.
It is a shame that it has been forgotten so easily.
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