Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon (1995) 368 p.

I can say without exaggeration that Michael Chabon is one of the greatest writers alive today. He is a Pulitzer Prize winner, a man who has made the restoration of genre fiction’s reputation his personal quest, and one of my favourite authors and greatest influences. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is one of the defining literary masterpieces of this decade.

We all start somewhere, though, and Wonder Boys, the tale of one weekend in the life of a washed-up creative writing professor named Grady Tripp, is only Chabon’s second novel. This early in his career, he had clearly mastered the art of the good sentence, and of the good paragraph. The average page in Wonder Boys is an aesthetic pleasure, marked by a wonderful balance of dry wit and genuine emotional passion. Example:

I saw that Sara, alone in a frail canoe, was drifiting nearer and nearer to the roaring misty cataract of motherhood, and that she now believed I was right behind her, in the stern, madly paddling. I searched for my feelings, an activity never far removed from looking for a dead rat in a spidery crawlspace under the house. I was appalled to see, after five years’ exposure to the unstable isotopes of my love, how many of her hopes Sara Gaskell still entrusted to me; how much of her faith there remained for me to shatter.

What he had not yet mastered was the art of stringing these gemstones into a larger story, particularly a story worthy of them. Wonder Boys is a meandering, inconsistent voyage through a strange weekend in Grady Tripp’s life, a story not quite sure of what it wants to be. Kerouac is mentioned as an explicit influence, and the forced zaniness of the weekend echoes Hunter S. Thompson. But Chabon is too maudlin a writer for these madcap adventures to feel real; he is at his best when describing Grady’s collapsing life, his realisations that he is a failure, his desperate attempt to find a way out of the hole he has dug for himself. He is at his worst when throwing tubas, boa constrictors, and dead dogs into the mix in an attempt to inject some crazy adventure into a book that simply doesn’t need it.