There are two kinds of people: those who love Michael Chabon, and those who haven’t read him yet. He is not just the King of CPOM – though he is definitely that, his first two novels being The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and Wonder Boys – he is this generation’s ambassador from Pittsburgh to the wider literary and cultural world. In his stories set in Pittsburgh (and most of his stories actually aren’t), the city plays a character role, with its personality very much intact. That is a difficult proposition for an author who wishes to make the setting of the story part of the story itself – at least without resorting to caricature, as in “Sex and the City” or LA Confidential.
Even when Chabon’s books aren’t set in the city of Pittsburgh, its influence runs like a river through his work. He wryly refers again and again to the “character” of Eli Drinkwater, the fictional late Pirates catcher who was tragically killed in a car wreck on Mt. Nebo Road. More than any direct reference, though, is the daring and unconventional personality of his work, in which I see the unmistakable stamp of a Pittsburgh worldview. Chabon is devoted to plot, eschewing the post-modern sensibility which holds that good literature is somehow opposed to a “good story.” He is playful with theme and genre – exploring the lifesaving power of baseball, and unafraid of annoying critics with detective stories, horror, and comics. He is funny, self-referential, and in a way, artless.
Perhaps any city would love to see those unique qualities as shaped by its influence, but I think this column Chabon wrote for the Post-Gazette last spring makes clear his connection to the city. He refers to Pittsburgh as his hometown (though he was born in D.C.), but that’s not what seals the deal. It’s the connecting lines he draws from Pittsburgh to everything else. Reading about Jackie Robinson brings Roberto Clemente to his mind; being in the City of Bridges leads him to the realization that we live in a “Nation of Bridges.” Pittsburgh is in this man’s heart; hear his love:
It’s in those bridges that the hope and the greatness of Pittsburgh lie. Though they were built to serve the needs of commerce and industry, other fundamental human needs — for communication, for connection, for free passage through the world — also drove their construction. As with courage, a beautifully engineered bridge such as Pittsburgh’s Smithfield Street Bridge can be defined as grace under pressure, reconciling distances and bearing heavy loads with elegance and steel. Pittsburghers live in their neighborhoods, but they rely on the bridges they have built to teach them how to live together in their city, through a transfer of shared humanity, a mutual reaching toward the opposite shore.
In a deeply personal way, I identify with Michael Chabon. He was not born in Pittsburgh, nor does he live there now, but its soul informs his life and work. Perhaps one day he’ll come home too.
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