Short, Inspiring Book Review: The Mysteries of Pittsburgh

What is inspiration?

inspiration (n.): Stimulation of the mind or emotions to a high level of feeling and activity.

I could just leave you with the dictionary’s definition of the term, or I could tell you about an inspiring book I had just finished reading during hurricane Sandy.

(first book cover)

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1987) is about a “big” thinker—a college student and a son in a Jewish mafia that is introduced by another man named Arthur, last name LeComte, to a different world.  Art would rather not follow in the footsteps of his father’s money laundering business, but doesn’t know just how related everyone is in this “new world.” And his father would bring Art to tears, despite the Winnie-the-Pooh-like voice.

Told in the first-person narrative, the reader gets little more than what Art sees at any given point; the background story is painted in drips and drabs, and the developing picture uses interesting imagery to build that whole, such as the “Cloud Factory” building.

The novel also avoids being overdramatic, as the web of relationships would become a bit sinister on one end, with the only-friend and motorcyclist Cleveland Arning breaking into people’s homes, and funny on the other, where Art once uses the flip of a coin to pick whom he wants to be with when a rather non-volatile love triangle forms with Lecomte and the “destined” girlfriend, Phlox Lombardi—the nurse that wears pearls, too much makeup and long painted fingernails that she would tap when nervous.

The writing is in no way gratuitous.  Offensive language is minimal and appropriate to its characters, and its sex is told in few words, even to the point of the brief all-in-one sentence; Art would even apologize for again noting his arousal.

With funny phrases at the beginning of chapters and big transitions in a few endings, in many ways the story is both a comedy and a tragedy.  One of the big characters dies in a fall, but I won’t spoil it by telling you which.  Being the one telling the story, Art calls his own account “exaggerated.”  Add to that the story’s realism, and you’d might think that this Art Bechstein could be a real person.

Summary

Told in three summer acts: the introductions and the wanting of a better summer; growing and getting wild; and finally, the seriousness of the criminal consequences.

Published in 1988, Mysteries is 297 pages of excellent writing, and a fun read that overcomplicates nothing. Involved, I also thought of how things could have been alternatively played at some points only to find, with details not yet surfaced, such changes would instead cause harm.  The story is delicate, and maybe too good to be improved, given its limited setting.

About the Author

Award-winning Michael Chabon has written essays, teleplays/screenplays, short stories, and novels, and this would be his first.  His other novels include Wonder Boys (also made into a film), The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, and co-wrote the screenplay for Spider-Man 2.  Mysteries was originally written for his U-CA Irvine master’s thesis.  His newest book, Telegraph Avenue, came out this summer.

Adaptation

A film adaptation was finally made in 2009, after Chabon’s failed attempt in 2000.  It stars Jon Foster as Art, Nick Nolte as Joe (the father), Mena Suvari as Phlox, Peter Sarsgaard as Cleveland, rather the bisexual combination of Cleveland and Lecomte as the gay Arthur Lecomte was completely removed in the screenplay.

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