Book Review

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon

Photo on 22-03-2016 at 21.54

Where is Pittsburgh? At any point while I read this novel, I could’ve looked it up. I didn’t, and I’m not doing so now, because I think this question sums up my overall attitude towards Michael “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay Chabon’s first novel (and OH isn’t it a first novel!?) The Mysteries of Pittsburgh: it’s not for me.

I am too old for The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. This is an archetypal first novel, all about sexual excess and love and lust and desire and “that last Summer after college” and moving in strange circles and dressing in strange clothes and meeting people who you think are amazing, in places you think are phenomenal: it’s all about being young, I suppose, and other than a very wise closing paragraph about the damaging effects of nostalgia to the memory, it feels young, it feels like someone writing about youth who doesn’t feel it as something gone, as something wasted, as something shameful and painful and awful: Chabon writes about youth as someone still enjoying it. And I, as someone who’s recently finished Youth, am the wrong kind of person to be reading this.

Maybe I’d enjoy the book if I was in my 40s or 50s or 60s or 70s, vicariously lapping the pleasures of youth long gone, but tonguing said pleasures in the tail end of my 20s does nothing but depress me further about the termination of all that was ever once fun. Yeah, I still consume loads of alcohol, but I’m drinking like Knausgaard’s dad now, waking up in the night on the living room floor covered in vomit, y’know: I’m not drinking with youthful abandon but with mid-life despair.

Intoxication isn’t a freeing and a pleasurable experience, it is a necessary stage to reach by the end of each day because the end of the day concludes another opportunity lost to fix things. Every time I fall asleep I am aware of my inability to create a satisfying life, aware the amount of days left to create one is diminished, that I’ve wasted another 24 hours self-hating and self-harming. But, hey, at least I’m not getting into any kind of trouble, because I’m consuming a legal intoxicant in a private space. Oh fuckedy joy. They let you buy enough booze to get shit-faced IN A SHOP for under a tenner. It’s easy to be destructive when alcohol is so available, and it’s lucky it is, because I don’t think a man as bald as myself has any prospective happiness. I made a short film about being bald, but I included my current favourite song, ‘Downtown’ by Macklemore, on it, which is copyrighted and thus the video was auto-muted by both YouTube and Vimeo. I’ll replace the sound and let the internet peer into my soul at some point soon, but not just yet. Not just yet.

My dog, who’s been ill, is improving. This is great, as it means I don’t have to the face the prospect of trying to regain a social life in lieu of the man-dog bond I was hoping for. It looks like the plan will go ahead as expected, and I will be able to abandon society for a good decade or so. I think this is what I was most scared about during the period of his hospitalisation: I bought the dog so that I would be able to not feel alone but could continue to ignore my ever-threatening-to-grow-back social anxiety.

(I’m having a lot of panic attacks near bins again. The bins don’t set me off, but the smell of bins is so bad it distracts me from what is making me hyperventilate long enough to calm down. It’s a great coping mechanism.)

For me, youth is something that visibly left: it went with my hair. Shaving my head signified the end of Youth, and I left that youth with little to show for myself, burying a lack of happiness by buying a dog, which is EXACTLY the kind of thing people who aren’t young do. I could pretend to recapture my youth by drinking in trendy cocktail bars with the people I used to drink in trendy cocktail bars with, but it wouldn’t be the same. I see reflections of my bald self in tiles and vases and the flat surface of my triple negronis, and I see a life gone on too long. I stare into other people’s homes, into bars, pubs, cafes, churches, places where people are together, and then I return to my emptiness, feeding my dog on free-range organic chicken I know millions of people couldn’t afford to buy to feed themselves. I’m vegetarian. The local artisanal butcher’s is now my dog food shop.

I am detached and distracted, dissolute and depressed, fraying at the edges and blankly, emptily, trudging through existence. When I don’t drink, I hallucinate. I’m sober today, and wracked with confusion. I struggle to hold a conversation sober unless I’m sat down or really fucking concentrating. I see people that aren’t there, I see people’s faces in strange ways – mistake strangers for people I know, even as close as two paces away; I see people with imaginary masks on. A few summers ago I was on medication to make me urinate less which caused me to hallucinate people with amputated arms. It was weird, but somehow an intriguing and an exciting experience, because it happened when I was young. This actual real life delirium tremens, instead, this mid-life slipping into serious and severe alcoholism, is neither intriguing or exciting, it’s just fucking bleak. How do I get out of the cycle? By being alone, that seems to be the answer. I don’t have to drink today, I didn’t drink yesterday. Holding and playing with my dog makes me happy, writing something EVEN THIS TURGID, SELF-INDULGENT DRIVEL makes me feel content. I’ve read another book, I’ve written another blog, at least there is something to hold on to, something to cling to as my mind slips, as my memory fades, as my hands shake and as I embark, once again, on an almost certainly futile attempt to write more, smile more, drink less and exercise just a little bit, yeah. I suffer almost CONSTANTLY from deja vu.

God, what a waste of an hour. I haven’t even mentioned the book.


The Mysteries of Pittsburgh was Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Chabon’s first novel, published in 1988, the year I was (regretfully) born.

It is set in the 1980s.

There are references to celebrities and pop culture fads, songs, books, films, as well as the cultural interests of the era. One of which was gangsters.

Art Bechstein is the son of a gangster’s accountant, and this short novel details the slow slip of the protagonist’s clean life into the dirty dealings of his father. Art gets sucked in by his glamorous friends being excited by his criminal parentage, with the obvious violent outcome.

During the Summer in which the novel is set, Bechstein meets and falls in love with two people, one male, one female, and has an enjoyable time exploring the depth of his sexuality.

He drinks a lot, smokes a lotta tha marry-jeh-wan-hah and works a casual dead end job, aware that when Summer ends he will be a graduate and thus an adult.

The book is overwritten, to be honest, full of the “clever” allusions and “frank” descriptions of sex and drug use that all “undergraduate novels” contain. It’s amusing and moving in places, but the overall piece  pales in comparison with the later work by Chabon that I’ve read, which truly is masterful. This is enjoyable for what it is, but the stage of my life where I enjoy reading about young people having fun is definitely over, because the stage of my life being a young person having fun is over. It also feels like the stage of my life where I have fun is over, but I still have enough intellect lurking beneath the DTs to understand that’s because I’m suffering from depression.

(My kidneys ache when they’re not processing alcohol.)

Is there intellect behind the DTs? That’s the question I keep asking myself. Can I come back from this? Can I return to being knowledgeable and able to speak about things in front of others with an informed and informative air? Will I be able to express my thoughts and opinions in public, or is the only way to deal with people creating a mild drunkenness that I then go home and add to, add to, add to, with neat gin until I can collapse and stop running through my head every sentence I spoke. I drink to forget I’m drinking. I drink to stop my heart rate, anxiety, hallucinations. I drink because my body demands it and it’s easier to say yes. When I drink until I pass out I pass out through a happy space, content. I drift into unconsciousness unburdened by the things that made me begin drinking.

I have a bottle of mango juice in my fridge and that (plus maybe some water) will be all the liquid I consume tonight. Every day is a struggle, and it’s such a fucking shame that I’ve got to this stage.

But I have.


The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is cliched and a bit dull because of this. I wouldn’t recommend it – it’s the kind of novel that wouldn’t get published nowadays.

It’s a lot, in tone and style, like the first novel I wrote, which deserves to rot in my GoogleDrive.

Just like I do.


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