Michael Chabon's second novel was supposed to be called "Fountain City," but it isn't. And it was supposed to concern the building of the perfect baseball stadium, but it doesn't. So something clearly happened on the way to the bookstores. Chabon, who became a literary celebrity at the age of 24 with his 1988 debut "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh," spent five years laboring over "Fountain City." He sent a 672-page draft to his agent and editor, who were underwhelmed. Then he panicked. "It was really scary," says Chabon, staring at the wood floors of his living room in Hollywood. "I'd already signed a contract and been paid all this money. And then I'd gotten a divorce and half the money was already with my ex-wife. My instincts were telling me This book is fucked. Just drop it. But I didn't, because I thought, What if I have to give the money back? What am I gonna do? I've got to keep going." Chabon (pronounced "Shaybahn") shifts in his chair. "I used to go down to my office and fantasize about all the books I could write instead."
And then he wrote one of them. Wonder Boys (369 pages. Villard. $23) concerns Grady Tripp, an over-weight, pot-addled writing professor who's been wrestling with the same 1,200-page novel for years. (His novel is also called "Wonder Boys.") Grady's grand plan is to polish his opus off in one weekend and salvage his career, as well as that of his lifelong friend and editor, a hilariously dissipated gay man named Terry Crabtree. Instead, Grady pops some pills at a writers' conference, impregnates a colleague's wife and races around with a transvestite, a dead dog and a tuba. Chabon wrote "Wonder Boys" in one seven-month streak-he never told his agent or editor that he'd dumped "Fountain City"-and its plot cruises along on a cushion of air. The novel is a fabulous romp, a satire of fake and former prodigies written by the real thing. Chabon drops strange words everywhere (dinotherian? adipose? lambent?) and tucks elegant little asides into the bends of virtually every line. Let's pick a sentence at random: "I looked around the living room." Well, all right, let's pick another: "I wasn't worrying about the tiny zygote rolling like a satellite through the starry dome of Sara's womb, or about the marriage that was falling apart around me, or about the derailment of Crabtree's career, or about the dead animal turning hard in the trunk of my car; and most of all I was not thinking about 'Wonder Boys'." There. If that's not lambent prose, we don't know what is.
Reviewers have already called Chabon one of the most lyrical voices of his generation. Now it's time to ask if there's anyone even good enough to sing backup. Chabon grew up in Maryland, where his father was a pediatrician and his mother a lawyer. His earliest inspiration was Henry Miller. "That was much more about lifestyle," Chabon admits. "I wanted to go to Paris and have lots of sex and write about it." And did he? "Uh, I went to Paris." Chabon was a student at the University of Pittsburgh and at the University of California, Irvine. And then he was a star. in "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh," which was his master's thesis, he wrote so convincingly about conflicted sexual longings that NEWSWEEK included him in a roundup of gay writers, never knowing he was straight. (Oops.) The novel brought Chabon a spectacular $155,000 advance and the first in a series of movie deals, though "Mysteries" never made it to the screen. In 1988 the world was full of club-hopping young writers like Jay McInerney, Tama Janowitz and Bret Easton Ellis-the Crap Pack?-but Chabon alone seemed committed to the prose, not the pose. "I never felt like I belonged because I literally couldn't hang out with them," he says. "I was too dull. or whatever., No, no. Dullness, thy name is "Less Than Zero." Today, Chabon and his second wife, a federal public defender named Ayelet Waldman, live on a street lined with stuccoed houses and sycamores. The couple have a 5-month-old daughter named Sophie, who, at press time, was teething. "I'm gonna be a househusband." Chabon says brightly. "I love to cook. I do the shopping. And I keep the house neat and all that kind of stuff. So I think that's gonna be my life now: taking care of Sophie and then writing at night. It sounds good to me." The writer is working with producer Scott Rudin, who's optioned both "Wonder Boys" and an original screenplay Chabon wrote about old Jewish folks on a third-rate cruise ship out of Miami. He's also collaborating with director Julianna Lavin on a movie treatment of "S Angel," a story from his 1991 collection "A Model World." Chabon says he'll never publish "Fountain City," though he may borrow from it for future books: "I think it'll be like this incredible shipwreck that I'll be feeding Off Of, like Robinson Crusoe, for the next 30 years." Our guess is that incredible shipwreck will produce some incredible ships.