So I kind of wish I’d read this after reading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Because while this book is good–more than good, it’s really good– Kavalier and Clay was a masterpiece, and one of the best books I’ve ever read, and so this one suffers in comparison. Given that I loved Kavalier and Clay so much (it’s easily one of my top 10 favorites) and that this book was one of Chabon’s first, there was no way it could have every lived up to my expectations. Even so, it’s a pretty good read.
Wonder Boys is about Grady Tripp, a professor and writer who is struggling to complete his novel, aptly entitled Wonder Boys, a follow-up to his last, massively successful book, as his life disintegrates around him. One night, after his wife has left him and he discovers a significant secret about his mistress, he finds himself paired up with one of his students (the strange yet talented James Leer, who’s obsessed with old Hollywood) and his editor (a flamboyant man named Terry Crabtree, one of his oldest friends) on a wild misadventure across Pittsburgh and beyond, involving dog corpses, stolen memorabilia, transvestites, seductive young women, and a mysterious tuba.
One of the best things about this book is how Chabon balances the decided zaniness of the plot with real emotion and drama. Don’t get me wrong–this book is really funny, and is a great satire of writerly pretentiousness and academic competition. But all of these characters feel very real, and you end up caring for them deeply. Grady is a great narrator–flawed and kind of an asshole, but in a very endearing way. And the rest of the cast are, while all quirky and unique, grounded enough in reality that their actions feel plausible.
As always, Chabon is a phenomenal writer, and puts together sentences so gorgeous I wish I’d written them myself. It’s interesting, though, how tonally different this novel is from some of his other work. It shows how good he is, I think, that he doesn’t have a distinct voice, per se, and can lose himself so completely in his characters. It’s a great trait to have, and makes him a really exciting author, because you never quite know what you’re going to get.
This, combined with the engaging and funny plot, make this a really quick and enjoyable read. I definitely recommend it, especially if you’re already a Chabon fan.