Michael Chabon wrote The Mysteries of Pittsburgh when he was a young man and it has many of the flaws of a young man's novel. I loved it when I first read it, even more on the second reading, but have since come to find it irritatingly precious and occasionaly mawkish. But its narrator is a sentimentalist, and though it's a bit of a scam to drape authorial sentiment on a sentimental character precisely in order to avoid the charge, it can be done well, and so forgiven. (That Chabon is in cahoots with the McSweeney's gang and is the mate-consort of the truly execrable Ayelet Waldman are likewise traits that talent alone excuses, if just barely.) In any case, Mysteries is a very good first novel, assured of its voice and certain of its intentions, although it rushes headlong into a too-brief epilogic coda at the very end and engages in some too-neat writerly tricks on the way.
The opening paragraphs take a virtuoso turn:
AT the beginning of the summer, I had lunch with my father, the gangster, who was in town for the wekeend to transact some of his vague business. We'd just come to the end of a period of silence and ill will--a year I'd spent in love with and in the same apartment as an odd, fagile girl whom he had loathed, on sight, with a frankness and a fury that were not at all like him. But Claire had moved out the month before. Neither my father nor I knew what to do with our new freedom.Now that is a fine opening, and of all the many, many flaws in Rawson Marshall Thurber's lousy adaptation, the greatest wasn't his elimination of characters, his butchering of others, his clumsy condensations, his inexplicable changes of scenery, his tin ear for dialogue, nor even his casting of Sienna Miller, who is as stiff as a cum rag on the morning after; it is, rather, that he didn't pay attention to what these paragraphs are saying about Art Bechstein and his father. In particular, Thurber never quite gets that Art, Sr. is right when he calls his son overwrought, nor does he allow that Art, Jr. is right to think that in some small way, his father does understand.
"I saw Lenny Stern this morning," he said. "He asked after you. You remember your Uncle Lenny."
"Sure," I said, and I thought for a second about Uncle Lenny, juggling three sandwich halves in the back room of his five-and-dime in the Hill District a million years ago.
I was nervous and drank more than I ate; my father carefully dispatched his steak. Then he asked me what my plans were for the summer, and in the flush of some strong emotion or other I said, more or less: It's the beginning of the summer and I'm standing in the lobby of a thousand-story grand hotel, where a bank of elevators a mile long and an endless red row of monkey attendants in gold braid wait to carry me up, up, up through the suites of moguls, of spies, and of starlets, to rush me straight to the zeppelin mooring at the art deco summit, where they keep the huge dirigible of August tied up and bobbing in the high winds. On the way to the shining needle at the top I will wear a lot of neckties, I will buy five or six works of genius on 45 rpm, and perhaps too many times I will find myself looking at the snapped spine of a lemon wedge at the bottom of a drink. I said, "I anticipate a coming season of dilated time and of women all in disarray."
My father told me that I was overwrought and that Claire had had an unfortunate influence on my speech, but something in his face said that he understood. That night he flew back to Washington, and the next day, for the first time in years, I looked in the newspaper for some lurid record of the effect of his visit, but of course there was none. He wasn't that kind of gangster.
Of course, he engages all those other errors as well. Fans of the book especially hated Thurber's elimination of one of the most central characters, Arthur Lecomte, the catalyst which brings all the main characters together and the man who becomes Art Bechstein's lover for a spell. They felt it needlessly toned down the novel's gayness in order to avoid the deadly gay genre in filmmaking. This scarcely needed any effort. The film succeeded at failing quite well on its own, and it barely found a distributor. I didn't find the movie any less gay, exactly--well, perhaps a little, but muddle-headed bisexuality marks Bechstein in book and movie alike, so whatevs--but I did find the decision inexplicable except as an exercise in pure laziness. What is interesting about Art Bechstein and Arthur Lecomte is not that they are romantically coupled, but that they are a couple of liars, both liars by omission. Art is slumming it, and Arthur is pretending to be a rich kid, and it is the reciprocal foil of their paired dishonesty that lends a tragic undertone to the . . . well, slightly overwrought proceedings.
The failure to speak honestly is the tragic flaw of all the book's characters, and while Thurber doesn't make his characters any more truthful than Chabon, he pitches it wrong. His Art is just a dissipated loser chafing under his gruff father's dominion. His Art, Sr. is just . . . gruff, without a hint of understanding or camaraderie with his son. His Cleveland, the apprentice cryptogangster whose hijinks drive the plots of both the movie and the book, is merely a wild-child. His Phlox, one of Art's love interests, is a mere cipher (although, to be fair, she is the book's least successful character, a sort of collage of quirks and affectations with no flesh to her). "The beautiful Jane," as the novel had it is . . . Sienna Miller. (Note to Rawson Thurber: do not allow Sienna Miller to pretend to play the violin. Ever. Again.)
Interesting, Curtis Hanson winningly adapted Chabon's other and better Pittsburgh novel, Wonderboys, which required much more condensing, as it is a modest whale of a book. This suggests to me not only that everything is better with Robert Downey, Jr., nor simply that Michael Douglas, for his faults, beats Nick Nolte nine times out of ten, but that adaptation is better accomplished by someone who appreciates a work than someone who loves it so much that he wants to improve it.