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Gothic Irony

WEREWOLVES IN THEIR YOUTH: Stories;\o7 By Michael Chabon; (Random House: 212 pp., $22.95)\f7

May 02, 1999|MICHAEL CARROLL | Michael Carroll's reviews have appeared in Punch magazine and the Guardian and his fiction most recently in "Men on Men 7" (Plume Books, 1998)

A young father haunted by a libidinous past is confronted by the need for real intimacy with his daughter. A couple troubled by an emptiness at the center of their relationship waver on the verge of buying their first house. Two schoolboys with only a single property line and their fatherless suburban households in common meet briefly on the invisible borders of their misfit imaginations and are separated again by the hairy hand of fate. A maturing woman who has spent years of her marriage struggling to have a child is attacked and impregnated by a serial rapist but decides against her husband's wishes not to have an abortion, sending him into sleepless agonies and a torment of cuckoldry and indignation. Conflict, stitched into intricately worked but colorfully descriptive language, characterizes the darker tones that are increasingly favored by Michael Chabon in his new story collection, "Werewolves in Their Youth."

A loving craftsman and the author of superb, seemingly alchemically rendered sentences, Chabon has been producing pitch- perfect, at times even dazzling, fiction since he arrived a fully formed and stubbornly classical talent in 1988--onto a scene still largely minimalist with his decidedly non-minimalist first novel, "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh." Forging unforgettable figurative language from the raw materials of pop culture, a firm literary grounding and an almost metaphysical sense of metaphor, he wrote of a desirable young woman in "Ocean Avenue," from his 1991 book, "A Model World and Other Stories": "She'd permed her hair since he last saw her . . . it flew around her head in two square feet of golden Pre-Raphaelite rotini--the lily maid of Astolat on an endorphin high."

"A Model World" allowed the author to fill in more of his chosen canvas: "Suburbia" had never come alive in quite the same way as in these bright evocations of a recent past, tinged with nostalgia but also pain and conflict. In the 1995 novel "Wonder Boys," he further explored the chiaroscuro memories of a waning culture, dimmed by the elements but returned to some of its original shine and glory. "Werewolves in Their Youth" finds the maturing generation, captured with all of the youthful sorrow and narcissism of "A Model World," confronting the grimness of adulthood's choices and its harsh dealings. In "Son of the Wolfman" the narrator muses over some wrenching circumstances: "Over the same period of six months, Richard Case became lost. It was a measure, in his view, of the breadth of the gulf that separated Cara and him that she could be so cheerfully oblivious of his lostness. His conversation, never expansive, dwindled to the curtness of a spaghetti western hero. His friends, whose company Richard had always viewed as the ballast carried in the hold of his marriage, began to leave him out of their plans. Something, as they put it to each other, was eating Richard. To them it was obvious what it must be: the rapist, tall, handsome, muscled, a former All-American who in his youth had set a state record for the four hundred hurdles, had performed in one violent minute a feat that Richard in ten loving years had not once managed to pull off."

While his language has relinquished none of its vividness, Chabon has mellowed it into an elegant vessel of irony and empathy. Of the couple who in "House Hunting" are in need of marriage improvement, and who resort--beyond "the watching of a movie called Spanking Brittany Blue" and last night's foot massage--to an upgrade in living, from an apartment to an oversized house, he writes that "Christy had agreed to join herself in perpetuity to a man whose touch left her vagina as dry as a fist, and Daniel had consigned himself to a life spent as a hundred and sixty-two pounds of hair in her mouth and elbows in her rib cage and hot breath in her nostrils." The irony mounts, as Daniel does Christy, when the two become aroused while viewing a house on the market; gradually they pick up on the atmosphere of infidelity and betrayal in the marriage of the owners--one of whom is their own Realtor, ejected from this house but compulsively still drawn to it and in need of revisiting the scene of his former wife's crime.

Some of the stories, such as "Mrs. Box," about a failed husband and felon who's painted himself into a corner, and "The Harris Fetko Story," a hilarious reading of the American sports culture, turn on the dime of Chabon's fine laugh-out-loud phrasing. The single childhood piece, the title story, is an effort by the now-grown narrator to restore the place of a hotheaded father, at least in memory, to the side of his divorced mother. A story of fantasy in part, it borrows from B-movie imagery and helps suffuse Michael Chabon's canvas with a deepening sense of color--well-lit but informed of the dark spaces and saturations near the edges and corners.

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