Thanks to the magic of interweb research, I can pinpoint my discovery of Michael Chabon down to the exact date. When I started worked in commercial radio in the mid-nineteen-nineties, one of the little oddities I discovered was the presence of television sets in the broadcast booths. I think the theory was that on air personnel would have access to the local television stations or even the cable news networks in the event of major events, but in practice it just allowed the DJs to watch TV instead of having to actually listen to, say, Weezer’s “Buddy Holly” for the third time in a six hour shift. The device was an especially welcome distraction for those, like me, who were typically manning the microphone during the overnight hours when the rest of the building was empty and the phones were painfully quiet.
One of the shows I watched with some regularity on those lonely nights was The Late Late Show with Tom Snyder, the program created by David Letterman’s Worldwide Pants to follow-up his own talk show on CBS. The whole show had a deeply appealing unassuming quality that was grounded in nearly bygone principles of broadcasting. Snyder talked about “colortinis” and urged viewers to “watch the pictures as they fly through the air” and generally behaved with such a disengagement from any attempts at polish and cool that even guests occasionally mocked the aesthetic of genial looseness. Snyder was always more of a conversationalist than an interviewer, which often led him to book people who he found interesting, even if they weren’t typically the sort to be given an extended platform on network television. That included authors, and so it was that on the evening of July 8, 1995 Snyder welcomed Chabon onto the program to discuss his newly published novel, Wonder Boys. The only thing I remember about the interview was that I was fascinated by the things Chabon was sharing about his new work. In a happy bit of kismet, I found a copy of the novel at Half Price Books in Madison a couple of weeks later, snapping it up immediately.
The book told the story of Grady Tripp, a college professor who is deep into the process of writing the follow-up to his acclaimed novel that had been published years and years earlier, the incalculable burden of matching the quality of the earlier work pushing the new effort past the 2000 page mark with no end in sight. Grady’s various stresses come together all at once, triggered initially by the departure of his wife, but incorporating a gloomy student, a dead dog, an extramarital affair that takes on a special level of import and a tuba that is so vividly present as a part of the narrative that it nearly becomes a full-fledged character (at one point, Grady turns around, “half-expecting to see the tuba” had followed him, and it seems a totally reasonable suspicion to have). The book is sharp, clever, extremely funny and brimming with that most elusive of qualities, a fiercely intelligent voice.
I was already committed to Chabon after reading Wonder Boys, but his next novel, published five years later, could have tapped out specifically to lock me in as a devotee forever. I acquired The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay from the old Canterbury Booksellers in Madison in a transaction that also included Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin (what I referred to earlier as “the single greatest bookstore purchase I’ve ever made”). Besides being a beautifully written, weighty, evocative epic of American life through the bustling middle of the twentieth century, it also happens to be about comic book creators, tickling the geekiest part of my inner being, which has been ruthlessly exposed in this space. In particular, I was enthralled at all the ways that Chabon incorporated spectral remnants of classic Marvel Comics creators such as Jack Kirby and Jim Steranko into the creativity of Joe Kavalier, the inspired artist who lends his name to the book’s title and co-creates the Escapist, the legendary Golden Age comic book character within the story. Wonderfully, Chabon won that year’s Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for the book and forever consigned himself to the role of respectable interview subject for any and all subsequent documentaries about comic books and their creators. To his credit, he is apparently indefatigable in discussing the topic.
Perhaps set askew somewhat by his own great success, Chabon has been an intriguingly restless writer in the years since Kavalier and Clay, trying on lean, abstract short stories, ruminative essays, some potentially misguided screenwriting gigs, young adult fiction and even his own version of a Sherlock Holmes tale. He even worked with McSweeney’s to share shards of his fabled aborted novel Fountain City, the struggles with which helped to inspire the creative dilemma of Grady Tripp, a process of literary self-flagellation that he said was for “failure enthusiasts and fans of ruination all around the world.” Even when some of these publishing efforts fail to live up to the loftier levels he’s established as within his capability, his willingness to let his writing be shaped by the wanderlust of his mind carries its own reward. And he really can put together casually potent imagery and tremendous turns of phrase like few others.