Michael Chabon’s twenty-five-year-old novel Wonder Boys is an evocative ode to the “midnight disease” writers share and a perplexing celebration of the anti-hero. Chabon’s writing is intense and intimate, but Wonder Boys will leave readers struggling with a sense of disappointment and confusion.
Grady Tripp is a professor and a writer, and as a writer he suffers from what he has termed the “midnight disease.” Sufferers of this ailment seem out of touch with reality. They are haunted by the fates of their fictional protagonists, and they lack the courage to fully embrace real life with all of its difficulties and expectations. Grady suffers from all of this, along with an addiction to marijuana and a debilitating deficiency in integrity.
During a writing conference at the college where he teaches, Grady’s corrupt and conniving best friend comes to visit, one of Grady’s students shows up on the verge of suicide, and Grady’s girlfriend tells him that she’s pregnant… which he suspects won’t go over well with his wife. The sudden flood of crises forces Grady on a drunken, drugged quest, in which he will have to face his failure as a writer, friend, husband, and lover.
Chabon’s writing is engrossing and fluid, and each scene feels authentic, despite the swirling haze of weed that seems to saturate the pages. Grady, despite his utter failure at everything, somehow inspires readers to root for his redemption. Unfortunately, his redemption, if it can be so named, falls horribly flat. The moment of crisis, of climax, of definitive decision that the whole book drives towards, vanishes in the rearview before readers know it’s happened. Suddenly, the book is ending, and our hero looks remarkably unchanged by his journey.
While Chabon’s prose is compelling, and his characters are memorable, the story as a whole feels under baked (and simultaneously over baked). Readers will find themselves engrossed in a strange, depraved world, curiously waiting to see how the hero overcomes his many obstacles, only to be left wallowing in the mud.
P.S. I much preferred Chabon’s more recent novel The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. Unfortunately I don’t have a review of that one, but I gave it four stars on Goodreads!