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Wonder Boys

Michael Chabon

  Wonder Boys

  A Novel

  Michael Chabon

  To Ayelet














































  A Biography of Michael Chabon

  Let them think what they liked, but I didn’t mean to drown myself. I meant to swim till I sank—but that’s not the same thing.

  —Joseph Conrad

  The author would like to thank

  Mary Evans and Douglas Stumpf,

  Tigris and Euphrates of this little empire.

  THE FIRST REAL WRITER I ever knew was a man who did all of his work under the name of August Van Zorn. He lived at the McClelland Hotel, which my grandmother owned, in the uppermost room of its turret, and taught English literature at Coxley, a small college on the other side of the minor Pennsylvania river that split our town in two. His real name was Albert Vetch, and his field, I believe, was Blake; I remember he kept a framed print of the Ancient of Days affixed to the faded flocked wallpaper of his room, above a stoop-shouldered wooden suit rack that once belonged to my father. Mr. Vetch’s wife had been living in a sanitorium up near Erie since the deaths of their teenaged sons in a backyard explosion some years earlier, and it was always my impression that he wrote, in part, to earn the money to keep her there. He wrote horror stories, hundreds of them, many of which were eventually published, in such periodicals of the day as Weird Tales, Strange Stones, Black Tower, and the like. They were in the gothic mode, after the manner of Lovecraft, set in quiet little Pennsylvania towns that had the misfortune to have been built over the forgotten sites of visitations by bloodthirsty alien gods and of Iroquois torture cults—but written in a dry, ironic, at times almost whimsical idiom, an echo of which I was later to discover in the fiction of John Collier. He worked at night, using a fountain pen, in a bentwood rocking chair, with a Hudson Bay blanket draped across his lap and a bottle of bourbon on the table before him. When his work was going well, he could be heard in every corner of the sleeping hotel, rocking and madly rocking while he subjected his heroes to the gruesome rewards of their passions for unnameable things.

  As the market for pulp horror dried up in the years after the Second World War, however, the flecked white envelopes with their fabulous New York addresses no longer appeared so regularly in the Belleek tea tray on my grandmother’s piano; presently they ceased to arrive altogether. I know that August Van Zorn tried to make an adjustment. He changed the settings of his tales to the suburbs and laid a greater emphasis on humor, and he tried, without success, to sell these tame and jokey pieces to Collier’s and the Saturday Evening Post. Then one Monday morning when I was fourteen years old, of an age to begin to appreciate the work of the anonymous, kindly, self-loathing man who’d been living under the same roof as my grandmother and me for the past twelve years, Honoria Vetch threw herself into the swift little river that flowed past the sanitorium, through our town, down to the yellow Allegheny. Her body was not recovered. On the following Sunday, when my grandmother and I came home from church, she sent me upstairs to take Mr. Vetch his lunch. Ordinarily she would have gone herself—she always said that neither Mr. Vetch nor I could be trusted not to waste the other one’s time—but she was angry with him for having declined, among all the empty Sundays of his life, to go to church on this one. So she cut the crusts from a pair of chicken sandwiches and set them on a tray along with a salt-shaker, a white peach, and a King James Bible, and I climbed the stairs to his room, where I found him, with a tiny black-rimmed hole in his left temple, sitting, still slowly rocking, in his bentwood chair. In spite of his fondness for literary gore, and unlike my father, who, I gathered, had made a mess of things, Albert Vetch went out neatly and with a minimum of blood.

  I say that Albert Vetch was the first real writer I knew not because he was, for a while, able to sell his work to magazines, but because he was the first one to have the midnight disease; to have the rocking chair and the faithful bottle of bourbon and the staring eye, lucid with insomnia even in the daytime. In any case he was, now that I consider it, the first writer of any sort to cross my path, real or otherwise, in a life that has on the whole been a little too crowded with representatives of that sour and squirrelly race. He set a kind of example that, as a writer, I’ve been living up to ever since. I only hope that I haven’t invented him.

  The story—and the stories—of August Van Zorn were in my thoughts that Friday when I drove out to the airport to meet Crabtree’s plane. It was impossible for me to see Terry Crabtree without remembering those fey short stories, since our long friendship had been founded, you might say, on August Van Zorn’s obscurity, on the very, abject failure that helped crumple the spirit of a man whom my grandmother used to compare to a broken umbrella. Our friendship had itself, after twenty years, come to resemble one of the towns in a Van Zorn story: a structure erected, all unknowingly, on a very thin membrane of reality, beneath which lay an enormous slumbering Thing with one yellow eye already half open and peering right up at us. Three months earlier, Crabtree had been announced as a staff member of this year’s annual WordFest—I had wangled him the invitation—and in all the intervening time, although he left numerous messages for me, I’d spoken to him only once, for five minutes, one evening in February when I came home, kind of stoned, from a party at the Chancellor’s, to put on a necktie and join my wife at another party which her boss was throwing that evening down in Shadyside. I was smoking a joint while I spoke to Crabtree, and holding on to the receiver as though it were a strap and I stood in the center of a vast long whistling tunnel of wind, my hair fluttering around my face, my tie streaming out behind me. Although I had the vague impression that my oldest friend was speaking to me in tones of anger and remonstrance, his words just blew by me, like curling scraps of excelsior and fish wrap, and I waved at them as they passed. That Friday marked one of the few times in the history of our friendship that I wasn’t looking forward to seeing him again; I was dreading it.

  I remember I’d let my senior workshop go home early that afternoon, telling them it was because of WordFest; but everyone looked over at poor James Leer as they filed out of the room. When I finished gathering all the marked-up dittoed copies and typed critiques of his latest odd short story, shuffling them into my briefcase, and putting on my coat, and then turned to leave the classroom, I saw that the boy was still sitting there, at the back of the classroom, in the empty circle of chairs. I knew I ought to say something to console him—the workshop had been awfully hard on him—and he seemed to want to hear the sound of my voice; but I was in a hurry to get to the airport and irritated with him for being such a goddamn spook all the time, and so I only said good-bye to him and started out the door. “Turn out the light, please,” he’d said, in his choked little powder-soft voice. I knew that I shouldn’t have, but I did it all the same; and there you have my epitaph, or one of them, because my grave is going to require a monument inscribed on all four sides with rueful mottoes, in small
characters, set close together. I left James Leer sitting there, alone in the dark, and arrived at the airport about half an hour before Crabtree’s plane was due, which gave me the opportunity to sit in my car in the airport parking garage smoking a fatty and listening to Ahmad Jamal, and I won’t pretend that I hadn’t been envisioning this idyllic half hour from the moment I dismissed my class. Over the years I’d surrendered many vices, among them whiskey, cigarettes, and the various non-Newtonian drugs, but marijuana and I remained steadfast companions. I had one fragrant ounce of Humboldt County, California, in a Ziploc bag in the glove compartment of my car.

  Crabtree walked off the plane carrying a small canvas grip, his garment bag draped over one arm, a tall, attractive person at his side. This person had long black curls, wore a smashing red topcoat over a black dress and five-inch black spikes, and was laughing in sheer delight at something that Crabtree was whispering out of the comer of his mouth. It didn’t appear to me, however, that this person was a woman, although I wasn’t entirely sure.

  “Tripp,” said Crabtree, approaching me with his free hand extended. He reached up with both arms to embrace me and I held on to him for an extra second or two, tightly, trying to determine from the soundness of his ribs whether he loved me still. “Good to see you. How are you?”

  I let go of him and took a step backward. He wore the usual Crabtree expression of scorn, and his eyes were bright and hard, but he didn’t look as though he were angry with me. He’d been letting his hair grow long as he got older, not, as is the case with some fashionable men in their forties, in compensation for any incipient baldness, but out of a vanity more pure and unchallengeable: he had beautiful hair, thick and chestnut-colored and falling in a flawless curtain to his shoulders. He was wearing a well-cut, olive-drab belted raincoat over a handsome suit—an Italian number in a metallic silk that was green like the back of a dollar bill—a pair of woven leather loafers without socks, and round schoolboy spectacles I’d never seen before.

  “You look great,” I said.

  “Grady Tripp, this is Miss Antonia, uh, Miss Antonia—”

  “Sloviak,” said the person, in an ordinary pretty woman’s voice. “Nice to meet you.”

  “It turns out she lives around the corner from me, on Hudson.”

  “Hi,” I said. “That’s my favorite street in New York.” I attempted to make an unobtrusive study of the architecture of Miss Sloviak’s throat, but she’d tied a brightly patterned scarf around her neck. That in itself was a kind of clue, I supposed. “Any luggage?”

  Crabtree held on to the blue canvas grip and handed me the garment bag. It was surprisingly light.

  “Just this?”

  “Just that,” he said. “Any chance we can give Miss Sloviak here a lift?”

  “I guess that would be all right,” I said, with a faint twinge of apprehension, for I began to see already what kind of evening it was going to be. I knew the expression in Crabtree’s eye all too well. He was looking at me as though I were a monster he’d created with his own brain and hands, and he were about to throw the switch that would send me reeling spasmodically across the countryside, laying waste to rude farmsteads and despoiling the rural maidenry. Further he had plenty more ideas where that one came from, and if the means of creating another disturbance fell into his hands he would exploit it without mercy on this night. If Miss Sloviak were not already a transvestite, Crabtree would certainly make her into one. “What hotel is it?”

  “Oh, I live here,” said Miss Sloviak, with a becoming blush. “That is, my parents do. In Bloomfield. But you can just drop me downtown and I’ll get a cab from there.”

  “Well, we do have to stop downtown, Crabtree,” I said, trying to demonstrate to all concerned that my traffic was with him and that I considered Miss Sloviak to be merely a temporary addition to our party. “To pick up Emily.”

  “Where’s this dinner we’re going to?”

  “In Point Breeze.”

  “Is that far from Bloomfield?”

  “Not too far.”

  “Great, then,” said Crabtree, and with that, he took Miss Sloviak’s elbow and started off toward Baggage Claim, working his skinny legs to keep up with her. “Come on, Tripp,” he called over his shoulder.

  The luggage from their flight was a long time in rolling out and Miss Sloviak took advantage of the delay to go to the bathroom—the ladies’ room, naturally. Crabtree and I stood there, grinning at each other.

  “Stoned again,” he said.

  “You bastard,” I said. “How are you?”

  “Unemployed,” he said, looking no less delighted with himself.

  I started to smile, but then something, a ripple in the muscle of his jaw, told me that he wasn’t joking.

  “You got fired?” I said.

  “Not yet,” he said. “But it looks like it’s coming. I’ll be all right. I spent most of the week calling around town. I had lunch with a couple of people.” He continued to waggle his eyebrows and grin, as though his predicament only amused him—there was a thick streak of self-contempt in Terry Crabtree—and to a certain extent, no doubt, it did. “They weren’t exactly lining up.”

  “But, Jesus, Terry, why? What happened?”

  “Restructuring,” he said.

  Two months earlier my publisher, Bartizan, had been bought out by Blicero Verlag, a big German media conglomerate, and subsequent rumors of a ruthless housecleaning by the new owners had managed to penetrate as far into the outback as Pittsburgh.

  “I guess I don’t fit the new corporate profile.”

  “Which is?”


  “Where will you go?”

  He shook his head, and shrugged.

  “So, how do you like her?” he said. “Miss Sloviak. She was in the seat beside me.” An alarm clamored somewhere, to tell us that the carousel of suitcases was about to start up. I think that both of us jumped. “Do you know how many airplanes I’ve boarded with the hope in my heart that my ticket would get me a seat next to someone like her? Particularly while I’m on my way to Pittsburgh? Don’t you think it says a lot for Pittsburgh that it could have produced a Miss Sloviak?”

  “She’s a transvestite.”

  “Oh, my God,” he said, looking shocked.

  “Isn’t she?”

  “I’ll just bet that’s hers,” he said. He pointed to a large rectangular suitcase of spotted pony hide, zipped into what looked like the plastic covering for a sofa cushion, that was emerging through the rubber flaps on the carousel. “I guess she doesn’t want to have it soiled.”

  “Terry, what’s going to happen to you?” I said. I felt as though the alarm bell were still reverberating within my chest. What’s going to happen to me? I thought. What’s going to happen to my book? “How many years have you been with Bartizan, now anyway? Ten?”

  “It’s only ten if you don’t count the last five,” he said, turning toward me. “Which I guess you weren’t.” He looked at me, his expression mild, his eyes alight with that combination of malice and affection expressed so neatly by his own last name. I knew before he opened his mouth exactly what he was going to ask me.

  “How’s the book?” he said.

  I reached out to grab the pony-skin valise before it passed us by.

  “It’s fine,” I said.

  He was talking about my fourth novel, or what purported to be my fourth novel, Wonder Boys, which I had promised to Bartizan during the early stages of the previous presidential administration. My third novel, The Land Downstairs, had won a PEN award and, at twelve thousand copies, sold twice as well as both its predecessors combined, and in its aftermath Crabtree and his bosses at Bartizan had felt sanguine enough about my imminent attainment to the status of, at the least, cult favorite to advance me a ridiculous sum of money in exchange for nothing more than a fatuous smile from the thunderstruck author and a title invented out of air and brain-sparkle while pissing into the aluminum trough of a men’s room at Three Rivers Sta
dium. Luckily for me an absolutely superb idea for a novel soon followed—three brothers in a haunted Pennsylvania small town are born, grow up, and die—and I’d started to work on it at once, and had been diligently hacking away at the thing ever since. Motivation, inspiration were not the problem; on the contrary I was always cheerful and workmanlike at the typewriter and had never suffered from what’s called writer’s block; I didn’t believe in it.

  The problem, if anything, was precisely the opposite. I had too much to write: too many fine and miserable buildings to construct and streets to name and clock towers to set chiming, too many characters to raise up from the dirt like flowers whose petals I peeled down to the intricate frail organs within, too many terrible genetic and fiduciary secrets to dig up and bury and dig up again, too many divorces to grant, heirs to disinherit, trysts to arrange, letters to misdirect into evil hands, innocent children to slay with rheumatic fever, women to leave unfulfilled and hopeless, men to drive to adultery and theft, fires to ignite at the hearts of ancient houses. It was about a single family and it stood, as of that morning, at two thousand six hundred and eleven pages, each of them revised and rewritten a half dozen times. And yet for all of those years, and all of those words expended in charting the eccentric paths of my characters through the violent blue heavens I had set them to cross, they had not even reached their zeniths. I was nowhere near the end.

  “It’s done,” I said. “It’s basically done. I’m just sort of, you know, tinkering with it now, buddy.”

  “Great. I was hoping I could get a look at it sometime this weekend. Oh, here’s another one, I bet.” He pointed to a neat little plaid-and-red-leather number, also zipped into a plastic sleeve, that came trundling toward us now along the belt. “Think that might be possible?”

  I grabbed the second suitcase—it was more what you’d call a Gladstone bag, a squat little half moon hinged at the sides—and set it on the ground beside the first.

  “I don’t know,” I said. “Look what happened to Joe Fahey.”