I’m sitting in my uncle’s apartment in New York City. I read most of this book on the train to NYC yesterday and in Union Square today. A book about Pittsburgh, the city my uncle (and my mother) grew up in and the city where a very important somebody hails from. A book about the first summer after college. Some of these connections were planned, some weren’t. I didn’t know I’d be here (in every sense of that term) when I bought this book, but I knew I’d be reading it in this very moment.
I read Bret Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero over Christmas break my freshman year of college. That’s a novel about a kid coming home from college after the first semester of his freshman year and finding it a little more difficult to fit into his old life. Well, its about a lot of other things too – but that aspect really hit home with me because I was going through exactly that. That was an unintentional connection. When the Olive Editions started coming out of Harper Perennial two-ish years ago, I picked this one up along with the other two but I knew I had to save it. So it has sat on my shelf while its brethren were finished, even the three published after it. I was saving it for this moment, this immediately post-collegiate moment. Unfortunately, it didn’t match up to my expectations. I guess that’s my fault for HAVING those expectations in the first place, but c’est la vie.
The book started off (and really managed to come through the first almost-two-thirds) quite well. Art Blechstein is a cool main character and one who I can identify with. The novel is definitely dated – the 80s references are so thick at times that its tough to think about how life was before my life began. I don’t want to digress about technological advances but… well, the book definitely shows its age, unlike many books of the 80s or really any book that’s not from the last ten years.
Chabon does do a really great job at capturing “the summer” for a late teen/twentysomething. I mean, I feel it every summer. There’s, at first, this feeling of excitement… but that gets tempered pretty quickly. There’s this haze that consumes summers, even the most exciting ones. Not ennui but just… something. I don’t really know how to describe it – but he captures it in this book. The parties, the adventures, the meeting-new-people, the drudging summer job. All of it is here. I mean, I’m living at home this summer so obviously I can’t completely associate… and I do have to say that, at times, the couples all felt a bit older than immediately post-collegiate. They all felt a little mid-twenties as opposed to early-twenties. Nitpicky, I know, but I just can’t quite see my friends and I conversing the way that Phlox and Art and Arthur and Cleveland and Jane do. Not yet, anyway.
My problem with the book is that it takes some strange and unnecessary turns towards the end. I liked Art and Phlox’s relationship – and while its obvious that they weren’t going to stay together in any long-term sense, I don’t understand why things became (in my opinion) unnecessarily complicated with Arthur. I just thought the homosexual realization was a little stilted, a little forced, and it was jarring. It isn’t that it didn’t fit entirely – but it fit awkwardly. It was surprising and it just seemed out of place. It was a little too melodrama where the rest of the novel had been pretty grounded. Well…
Speaking of melodrama, my biggest problem came from the whole Mafia subplot. Okay, Art’s dad works for the mob, got it. Art’s mom was maybe killed by the mob, its unclear, but it gets hinted at enough that I’m making that assumption. Great. Cleveland somehow works for them. Okay. Its when everything started to come together that I started to really dislike this book. As Cleveland takes Art on his “rounds” and the final “chase” and the scene at the cloud factory… I don’t know, it just felt so forced. It was unnatural, it felt like something out of another book that was attempting to force its way into this one, aping the same style and everything but doing so poorly. The whole thrust of “this is the story of a first summer after college” seemed to fall away for this strange family lineage drama thing that had stayed in the background the whole rest of the novel. By the end of the book, I found myself pushing quickly to be done.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5. I can’t deny that I enjoyed sections of this book and some of them even connected very viscerally with me. However, this wasn’t another Less Than Zero kind of connection. Sure, Clay and Art are both possibly unreliable narrators (Art actually specifies in the last sentence that he probably exaggerated… which just infuriated me more than anything else) but Art just never seemed entirely real. This book, mainly because of the last third, never felt together or real or anything. It was a disappointing result to something that started off with some real potential.