A story about a middle-aged pot-head writer/professor’s crazy weekend: one that involves a transvestite, a tuba, a dead dog, an almost-suicide, a broken marriage, a pregnant mistress, and Marilyn Monroe’s coat? Absurd as it sounds, Michael Chabon manages to make a go of it. He accomplishes this by skilfully driving the novel on two levels- the superficial one, where the absurd events take place, and the other in the narrator’s inner life where sadness, regret, painful self-awareness and shaky integrity play out with adult seriousness and wry humor.
Thus we have one Grady Tripp- an author and English professor working on his long-awaited second novel, ‘Wonderboys’, after his award-winning first. Only thing is, this novel has taken on a life of its own: Tripp is simply unable to finish it. It’s only natural that this would strain his friendship with Terry Crabtree, also his agent. However, this aspect of Tripp’s failure we come upon later in the tale; most of the story is about his spectacularly bad behavior over the course of a single weekend involving all those crazy elements like dead dogs and tubas.
There are two young students, James Leer and Hannah Green, in Tripp’s writing class who are also involved in this wild weekend- and it is here that Tripp shows his best behavior- his sense of responsibility and protectiveness only appears when dealing with the youngsters, it seems. The talented and somewhat mysterious James is like a young bird that gets under Tripp’s wing, and the beautiful Hannah stays out of disaster by a hair’s breadth after her critique of the Professor’s work.
The only section I didn’t enjoy fully was the one where Tripp drives up to his wife Emily’s family home to share the Passover meal with them. It seemed to wander and was written too much like a witty screenplay, dying to be translated into film. And then the incident about the second dead animal was simply overkill, to use a crude pun. (Also was the very name- Tripp- a cute allusion to the Professor’s weed habit?)
Ultimately, Grady Tripp’s weekend ends with loss on multiple levels. Some caused by his own bad choices, some by pure dumb luck (even if we are led to believe that he is a reasonably happy man by the end of the novel). A lot of the story has to do with the art of writers- their world, academic and otherwise, their ‘midnight disease’ and their sometimes indistinguishable oneness with their own characters. Chabon once again conquers all with his own masterly writing, which makes the sad, drug-crazed weekend of a middle-aged rouè this layered and nuanced. An interesting sub-text of male friendship also runs through- with Crabtree, the father in law Irv, and even with young, semi-doomed James Leer that adds its own sweetness and longing, purer than Tripp’s disastrous loves with women.
I enjoyed Wonderboys for this superior writerly talent that Chabon posseses- each page yields a sentence or turn of phrase that one would like to underline and jot down in a notebook, to be read and re-read in later days with wonder and appreciation.