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A Life of Wonder and Awe : Books: Michael Chabon's writing struggles inspired his second novel, 'Wonder Boys.' But it's his new daughter who takes his breath away.

April 27, 1995|ERIK HIMMELSBACH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Michael Chabon was just your not-so-average literary wonder boy trying to splashily follow up his phenomenally successful debut, 1988's "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh," with a great second novel.

How difficult could it be?

After all, from the moment Chabon discovered his gift for writing, it had seemed so easy. At 13, Chabon penned a story about Sherlock Holmes meeting Captain Nemo, and he was hooked.

"It wasn't that hard," he says. "I had fun doing it, and I got all this praise and attention."

A mere decade later, while completing his master's in fine arts at UC Irvine, Chabon became the toast of the publishing world with the release of "Mysteries," which, although intended as his thesis, touched off an intense bidding war. (William Morrow ultimately plunked down $155,000.)

And, if critics were to be believed, he had the goods. Finally, they exclaimed, a literate young writer, someone more concerned with craft than attitude.

Unlike other authors of his age, Chabon embraced, rather than scorned, the power of words and language; his writing was lively, funny, involving, beautiful, the kind of stuff from which great literature is made.

Turning the pages of most first novels, says Douglas Stumpf, an editor who worked with Chabon on both "Mysteries" and his new "Wonder Boys" (Villard), is like "turning lead." But "Mysteries" has a "rare magic quality that really pulls you in."

Despite the praise accorded his first novel, "I wasn't confident about it," Chabon, 31, said recently over lunch at Farmers Market, near his Los Angeles home. "I never really had a chance with it to even think that I was writing this book to be read by the public."

With his second novel, Chabon thought, he would really slay 'em; he would move beyond the snotty-young-author ghetto that sheltered the Brets and Jays and Tamas, and never look back.

He also wanted to write a book that was more personal. "('Mysteries') was about somebody who resembled me in some ways, but there weren't any big chunks of myself in it," he says.

So, with a big fat advance from Villard in his pocket, Chabon embarked on his second novel, a long, frustrating and ultimately fruitless journey to a place called "Fountain City," which, he says, "was sort of a map of my brain."

It covered lots of ground, perhaps too much. Chabon attempted to incorporate several of his passions into one novel: Paris, Florida, architecture and baseball. But after 4 1/2 years, four drafts and more than 600 pages, he was no closer to finishing than when he began.

"It was just too much for one book," Chabon says. "To try to do it all at once was just over-exuberance and eagerness on my part."

He knew "Fountain City" was doomed after a year of writing, but kept plugging away. "Because I had taken that money, I felt like I couldn't dump the project, even when it was fairly clear to me that it wasn't working," he says.

Without telling anyone, he finally gave up in early 1993, while living in San Francisco. Using his wife's decision to take an early bar exam as incentive, he began anew. But the prospect of starting from scratch terrified him.

"When I dropped 'Fountain City' and started to write 'Wonder Boys,' that was really the scariest thing I've ever done. I was so afraid of (messing) up again."

*

Using his frustration--and fear--as inspiration, Chabon cranked out his first draft of "Wonder Boys" in seven months; by March, 1994, the great second novel was at last a fait accompli.

The story, in part, concerns a faded, pot-addicted wonder boy named Grady Tripp, a writer who clings to what could have been as he watches hopelessly--a detached observer in his own downward spiral--as his never-finished masterpiece 'Wonder Boys' and his entire life crumble and flit away like fall leaves caught in a breeze.

On many levels, Chabon could relate. During the "Fountain City" experience, he says, "I started to think, 'Oh, my God, I'm going to become one of those writers that I have heard about who are working on the same book for 10 years.'

"Then I started thinking, 'Well, what would that be like? Who does it happen to and why does it happen?' "

Although "Wonder Boys" isn't the autobiographical brain map that Chabon had initially hoped, it's probably just as well, if only for the preservation of his sanity. Unlike Grady, whose wasted potential is symbolized in his unfinished 2,000-page tome, Chabon lives up to his initial promise.

*

If there is a criticism to be leveled at Chabon's work, it is that the prose is too well crafted, too well described; that the preciousness and beauty of the language come at the expense of character development, masking a lack of real depth.

The New York Times said this about "A Model World," a 1991 collection of Chabon's short stories: "These sentences bring pleasure, and so too do Mr. Chabon's considerable narrative skills. But even when he is writing about dissolution, grief and loss, all too often he keeps his distance."

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