Thursday, October 10, 2013

Werewolves in Their Youth by Michael Chabon

I have to admit to being an unabashed fan of Michael Chabon.  Who else could write 'Jews with Swords' or 'The Yiddish Policeman's Union'?  Even with I read 'Summerland,' which was probably my least favorite of his novels that I've come across, there was still a strong feeling that no one else cold have written that particular story.  (And really, how else does one explain to a child the inherent evil of the American League's designated hitter?)  Above all else, Chabon has style all his own.

That sense of style is showcased rarely in Werewolves in their Youth, fleetingly displayed and left undeveloped in some places, and--to shocking affect--forsaken in at least one story.  There are very few stories here that seem obviously written by Chabon.  Apparently he had to develop into the writer he is and not everything comes out to be a stunning masterpiece.  And to be absolutely honest, I didn't know that.  

"I had known him as a bulldozer, as a samurai, as an android programmed to kill, as Plastic Man and Titanium Man and Matter-Eater Lad, as a Buick Electra, as a Peterbilt truck, and even, for a week, as the Mackinac Bridge, but it was as a werewolf that Timothy Stokes finally went too far."
That is the opening line to the title story: that, is Michael Chabon.  He is funny--no matter how inappropriate or dark--a hallmark that I've long felt marked quality contemporary, literary fiction as done by the likes of Chabon, Nicole Krauss, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez and others.  At his best, as in the title story, he tends to tell two stories at once.  One in more detail than the other and yet each illuminate and complement the other.  In Werewolves in their Youth we see two school boys, one who wants to be accepted and normal, the other who embraces being different and eagerly anticipates the thought of a special school and riding a different bus than all the other children.  Their story is against parents in the beginning stages of divorce explaining and trying to understand their differences, flirting with reconciliation, and ultimately coming to terms with all that separates them.    
House Hunting is a story about a realtor showing a home to a couple that probably shouldn't be together in the first place.  As we see the couple growing together, all in the course of the day and being shown one house, we also see that the realtor has some very strong personal connections to this particular house and it's current owner.  Chabon's 'tell two stories at once' mechanic works brilliantly and sometimes is so subtle as to go undetected.  
Son of the Wolfman is perhaps the most powerful and unfulfilling.  A ten-year married couple have been actively trying to get pregnant for five years with the assistance of every fertility drug they can afford.  As the wife decides to keep a baby beget by a rapist, she does so at the expense of her husband.  How a story with that premise can fall flat is beyond me.  While there was drive and tension aplenty the ending left me feeling grossly underwhelmed, if not indifferent.    
The collection's final inclusion is also the most interesting.  It's a horror story and a damned fine one at that.  Chabon, forever in love with flirting across genre lines, can drop his love of ornate descriptions and humor to scare you more than a little bit.  In The Black Mill works on all levels but it's inclusion in this particular collection is startling for more reasons than just the scary factor.  It's the only story of it's kind in this collection and it feels a bit lost.  I read it and kept waiting to laugh at something, to smile, or to marvel at his use of language.  By the time I figured out what was happening in the story I was too caught up in the events to want for any of the above, but in no way did this story fit in with the rest of the collection.  
The others are all fine writing if not anything spectacular.  There is nothing here to rival S Angel, nor is the collection as strong as A Model World and Other Stories.  That is to say, even if Chabon should be slightly off his game he is still stylishly amazing and wholly worth reading.  


Marion said...

Completely agree about Son of the Wolfman. I enjoyed House Hunting very much. It was good to read some early Chabon and see how he evolved to the writer he is now...

(... but have you read Telegraph Ave? I haven't, but friends who have were disappointed.)

Chad Hull said...

Still haven't read his newest but I'm sure I will. Actually, I've yet to read at least two of the novels he's primarily known for: Wonder Boys and The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Clay.

I'm got some catching up to do.