Customer Reviews: Wonder Boys: A Novel
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on November 8, 1999
I don't quite understand many of the negative reviewshere. People describe his writing as adolescent or reminescent of a story from a writer's workshop. I was an English major in college and realize that to go after one's dreams in the literary field is not easy, simply because of the quirky characters you get involved with. Chabon is not trying to mold profound statements even close to the same league as Chekov or even Updike, but otherwise he works in the same atmosphere as early Philip Roth. He simply describes characters so easily and with such fruition (without overembellishing them) that we are hooked. "The Wonder Boys" is truly about the the emotional atmosphere of the literary world. Unlike medical or law school - writer's are encouraged to stay young - Grady's problem is that he's forty years old, holding on to youth is killing him. The Wonder Boys is not a light a read as I've heard many label it so. It's truly about that gray line between youth and maturity - and within that line resides hundreds of English majors. I loved it, read and enjoy - definitely not a book for anyone who thinks Nabakov is the beginning and end of the artistic plane.
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on February 15, 2001
Wonder Boys, by Michael Chabon is an amazing roller coaster tale of a Professor Grady Tripp weekend. The novel is both entertaining and exhilarating yet still retains that Chabon charm that The Mysteries of Pittsburgh left me with. Chabon has a real knack for writing, he creates characters who are both quirky yet somewhat identifiable. Take Grady, a forty something, chronic head, college professor, and one time wonder boy... I felt myself feeling the man's pain. Suddenly I was getting a divorce, losing my job and impregnating my lover. I especially liked James Leer the college student, what a strange little bird! The book is a page-turner that's full of insight. Some may say it is quick read, yet I took my time to savor.
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on August 27, 2001
It is unfortunate to discover a fine novel after seeing it as a fine film. I did not know about Michael Chabon until after seeing Curtis Hanson's film adaptation of Wonder Boys (robbed of a Best Picture nomination), and did not read Wonder Boys until much later, coming across several other Chabon works first. That said, it is hard to know how I would have reacted to Wonder Boys if I did not know the story in advance. Unlike the broader Kavalier and Clay, which is in all a better book, Chabon does not slip into occasional caricature here. Yes, the "doped-up novelist with writer's block" and the "spooky, haunted young genius" are archetypes, but Chabon's Grady Tripp and James Leer come off as original inventions due to Chabon's skill with subtlety. While revealing characters through a road trip is hackneyed, it comes off better in the novel than on the screen. Chabon's uniqueness lies in his combination of the mundane and the bizarre -- well-crafted characters wandering through a strange landscape. Wonder Boys is not the choice for a reader who wants just one Chabon experience -- Mysteries of Pittsburgh is odder and funnier, and Kavalier and Clay is bigger and better. But for a Chabon fan, Wonder Boys is an excellent diversion.
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on January 22, 2003
After having read "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay" (AAKC), I swore to myself that I would absolutely adore anything by Michael Chabon. Now, having finished "Wonder Boys", I realize to some degree, how unrealistic that notion was.
I'm not saying that this book is uninspiring or flat. No, not at all. The whole story, about a writer in crisis as he watches his marriage and career go asunder over a weekend of quirky, humorous events, makes for good and entertaining read. Chabon's writing is as masterful as ever, he still splashes the book with candid, deadpan quips that I thoroughly enjoy and am totally jealous of. There were parts I enjoyed to the brink of laughing out loud (usually, I'm a pretty silent reader) - e.g. the Beer Pong scene, with James being slowly acquainted to the universal joys of being drunk.
That said, I simply could not stop myself from wishing more depth to the story. More scenes, more sub-stories from the lives of each character, if you will. Stories spanning different time eras, different backgrounds and histories. You see, the ghost of Kavalier and Clay was lurking somewhere in my stubborn mind (something like the tuba!), unwilling to be exorcised! This is the first book I can honestly say that was spoilt from unrealistic expectations and I regret that. If you want to enjoy this book and you've read AAKC, don't compare the two books. Wonder Boys is essentially the story of one man over a stretch of a weekend, AAKC is more like an epic tale of at least three characters over 50 years. They're really quite different, each with its very own appeal.
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on February 17, 2002
Tripp is a 40-something university professor and novelist who is having trouble finishing his fourth book: he's seven years and over 2,000 pages into it and he's not even halfway done. His favorite pastimes are getting high, getting drunk, and cheating on his wife, all while battling (and losing) his reflex of running off on wild adventures at the drop of a hat. Terry Crabtree, Tripp's gay editor and old friend, is flamboyant, likes college age boys, and is even more irresponsible with drug and drink.
A satire on the literary life, Wonder Boys is an enjoyable if somewhat cumbersome read. Great characters, all of them on a quest for self-acceptance, but Chabon gets bogged down by his obvious affection for literary description, which, while startingly good, distracts from the action at hand and puts too much space between the character and the reader. The book reads like a series of run-on scenes, rather than a flowing novel, which is probably why it made for a good film.
The relationship between Tripp, the main character, and James, one of his students, is a focal point of the novel. Tripp inadvertedly helps James kill a dog, and then spends the weekend running around with it in his trunk, trying at various times to dispose of it. But the relationship is deeper than its lighthearted treatment. The two of them end up palling around together all weekend, getting drunk and stoned, and finding themselves in over the top situations, which includes scenes with Crabtree, Tripp's wife who has just left him, his wife's very Jewish family, Tripp's lover who is pregnant, a stolen jacket onced owned by Marilyn Monroe, a stolen car, a drag queen, and on and on.
At times I marveled at Chabon's prose and his penchant for description -- that he loves his characters and respects them for who they are is evident, that he can be simultaneously playful and serious, that he can write circles around a good many of today's writers is also true. However, while the book is light in spirit, it is often not light on the printed page, and you sometimes have a difficult time getting pulled into the hilarity and absurdity of the action.
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on August 31, 2000
Having just finished Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys, I dropped by to see how it was holding up among the unofficial critics here on I read several of the reviews, one of which blandly states that Chabon's novel has "nothing important to say". I sat back and considered this statement, and then decided that I would feel guilty if I didn't get in my own two cents worth of criticism. So I guess I should begin with the assertion that Wonder Boys has everything important to say, and Chabon does an artful job of making sublime statements without interrupting his smooth, fluid prose. There is an underlying sense of impermanence in Wonder Boys that we experience as women, students, and ideas stream in and out of the life of Grady Tripp. Grady labors laboriously over his novel, which is supposed to be some kind of landmark for him, the anchor that will keep his world from careening out of control. The impossibility of finishing the novel, the irony of the title "Wonder Boys", carefully develop this thread without ever seeming like a platform. Each character is carefully fleshed out, encompassing bits and pieces of all kinds of people that we've known in our lives; the pompous writer, the strange kid in English class, the pimple-faced police officer. All of them are reflections, to some extent, of Chabon's audience, and they're all wonderful. Grady and James play off of each other with style and genuine humor, and learn from one another along the way. Getting lost in Chabon's graceful writing is part of the experience of reading the book; the visceral reaction to literature is as much a part of the work's core as the "message" found in the text. And "Wonder Boys" is a treat on both levels, the intellectual and the emotional. My hat goes off to the author and I encourage people to read it because the novel truly does have much to say.
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on August 3, 2010
Highly disappointing. After The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay I had a fairly sizable appreciation, goodwill and interest towards Michael Chabon, and didn't wait long before obtaining another of his works. This novel, however, was rather weak, failing to make any of the same sense of wonder, energy or interest. Rather it shows the over-familiar formula of an author struggling with writer's block and the process of writng. He also has a pattern of serial infidelity and assorted dysfunctional relationship.

I have to ask why. Why does Chabon expect me to be invested in the story, when he makes the character unlikeable and overly bound to archetypes? When he uses main elements already done before, and done more imaginatively? What was the mental process that lead to such a bland setup and underwhelming narrative? The meta element common to Chabon's other writing reappears, then, but in a far less unique or interesting format. Perhaps the most encouraging thing about this work's failure is that it occured earlier in Chabon's career, and perhaps it reflects an ongoing process of refinement for his literary direction. It's still a poor choice, and it makes me more skeptical about the wider literary investmnet. I don't think this is the same case as Number9Dream, where I couldn't disengage my perception from the shadow of Mitchell's earlier success but it was still a competent work. Here, there are real and fundamental problems.

It's not entirely a bad book, being engaging enough to go through and having a number of amusing incidents. On the whole, however, it delivers a very limited amount of insight, and the more one moves from individual lines and scenes, the emptier and less compeling the experiment seems. By all means an author can give us nothing but failrues for characters, throw the environment into despair, destroy the whoel world with their imagination. There needs to be more point to it than the kind of liftless failure Chabon offers up here.

Worse than: The Yiddish Policeman's Union by Michael Chabon
Better than: Secret Son by Laila Lalami
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on May 4, 2001
In a reversal of my usual routine, I saw "Wonder Boys" the film before I read the book. I thoroughly enjoyed the film, and I loved the book.
The book follows the travails of Grady Tripp, an overweight, aging college English professor who wrote the great American novel--and who has been totally unable to finish his follow-up book, which amounts to over 2 thousand pages at the beginning of the novel.
But, as the reader shortly finds out, this is just the beginning of Grady's problems. In the space of one long weekend during his college's WordFest writer's festival, he loses his wife, learns that his lover is pregnant, copes with his sexually ambiguous and troubled editor, and learns the truth about the life and talent of one of his students.
The novel is briskly paced and plotted, and the minute events in Grady's life are alternately funny and pathetic. You see Grady growing in sincerity and realization throughout the novel, and it's a pleasure to watch this dissolute but essentially good-hearted man fall and then rise again due to his change in priorities.
This is a funny, touching, expert piece of writing. Chabon just won the Pulitzer for his most recent novel, and this book clearly demonstrates his talent. I highly recommend it.
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on January 21, 2002
A year or three ago I was reading a review about the new Tom Wolfe novel and I remember the writer using a football comparison. He said something to the effect that if Tom Wolfe were a professional quarterback, he'd be described as one having, "all the tools." That's the first thing I thought of when I finished this terrific novel. It doesn't miss a thing.

The story is that of three days in the life of the narrator, Grady Tripp, a dope-smoking English professor at a small Pittsburgh-area college, who has had a tough time finishing the novel he's been working on for the last seven years. On this weekend he has a few other issues: his editor is coming to see him, probably for a final confrontation; his wife has finally left him; and his girlfriend has announced she's pregnant. Worse, it seems that every time he tries to come to terms with these problems, things just get more complicated.

As I mentioned, this is a novel with all the tools, and if you can think of anything you like to see in a novel, this novel has it. Characters? This novel is loaded with quirky, unusual, and even oddball characters, none of whom ever strain credulity, and all of whom strike recognizable poses. Even the smaller parts are painted perfectly. For some reason the sister-in-law sticks in my mind, with her crossed eyes, her bluntness, and her inappropriate dress. She comes down the stairs to the dinner party with a "loud, syncopated clatter," as if, "a croquet ball and a grapefruit were racing each other down to the bottom." Following the narrator's description of and conversation with her, this little commentary adds a finishing splash of illumination.

The larger roles are also wonderfully portrayed. There is James, the suicidal boy-genius, who begins to slowly develop an appreciation for life--incomplete by novel's end--right before our very eyes. There is the wife--Korean by birth--with her beautiful, sculpted face, who seemed so inscrutable and wise to the narrator, but who in reality was just . . . somewhat vapid. And there is the magnificently realized Crabtree, the gay, drug-ingesting editor: "Although it was only nine o'clock he had already gone around the pharmacological wheel to which he had strapped himself for the evening, stolen a tuba, and offended a transvestite; and now his companions were beginning, with delight and aplomb, to barf. It was definitely a Crabtree kind of night." Have not all of us at some point in our lives known some wild maniac like Crabtree?

The narrator is also a wonderful creation and just a joy to be around. He is somewhat aware of his shortcomings--though not completely so--but is nevertheless intelligent; insightful about the writing craft and those who are part of it; unusually perceptive about those around him; and in general very, very clever. He'll give you your share of laugh-out-loud moments, but most often you'll find yourself merely smiling or chuckling at a well-turned phrase, or marvelling at another of his dead-on descriptions or insights.

I guess I've already described the plot, but should mention that despite the melodramatic-sounding nature of it, it is actually meant to be funny, and is indeed hilarious. This is a broad comedy, a satire of academic know-everythings, who are really just as messed-up--if not more so--than everybody else. Chabon, with lightness and (mostly) good-natured sympathy, skewers them all.

Even the side stories are a delight. To elucidate the plot, Grady tells us of his past life, and by necessity we get a healthy dose of the various writers he has known and how they managed to create--or not create--or utterly disintegrate. He talks about his own writing, what he was trying to accomplish, and why he thought it succeeded or failed. We learn about the business end of it too, and how it is always and forever complicated by the fragile human souls who run it. This might sound dry, but he never goes on too long with it, giving us just enough to keep it, well, fascinating. He even comes up with quite of few of his own unique observations, referring to his craft both affectionately and sarcastically as, "the disease."

What impresses me most is the boldness of the author--a youngish-looking guy--to not only write as if he were a 41 year-old burnout, but to also have the audacity to write a novel about writing! What a risk this is! It is a subject which is fraught with danger: if he succeeds he is a presumptuous twit, if he fails he will be crucified. Above all, he has declared to the world that he will write well, and I am here to tell you, he does. Open the book to any page: you cannot help but be struck by the originality and freshness of his prose. For example, here he is talking about his mistress--the chancellor of the school--whose beauty he perceives behind her tightly-wound exterior: "Undressing her was an act of recklessness, a kind of vandalism, like releasing a zoo full of animals, or blowing up a dam."

Here is a funny comment about his unfinished novel, being prematurely passed around among his cohorts: "My book was at last going forth into the world, not, as I'd always imagined, like a great black streamlined locomotive . . . but rather by accident, and at the wrong time, a half-ton pickup with no brakes, abruptly jarred loose from its blocks in the garage and rolling backward down a long steep hill."

Ignore the horrible movie; this is truly a novel which has it all. The comparison above to the novels of Tom Wolfe is apt: so there is no misunderstanding, this is meant as the highest compliment.
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on October 25, 2012
Michael Chabon always awes with his use of language and, especially, his facility for metaphor, simile, and imagery. To say he's a gifted writer is a deep understatement. "Wonder Boys" exhibits those skills on almost every page: motherhood as a canoe nearing the precipice of a cascade; an umbrella opening like a spider's legs; a writer who "disappeared into the fastness of impregnable failure"; or "a sober man at a party is as lonely as a journalist, implacable as a coroner, bitter as an angel looking down from heaven." I wish I could write one sentence like that.

But, for all its charms, "Wonder Boys" ultimately is disappointing. I guess it works as a satire of the college literary world. It has memorable madcap adventures of a type that any of us would be thrilled to encounter. But the novel is empty; there's nothing really believable or interesting in the book. Everyone feels like a caricature --- sexy undergrad girls falling for aging professors, repressed homosexuals ready for their first encounter, beautiful-but-cold older women, drunks too drunk to shoot straight, and other drunks always ready with a quip.

The main character, Grady Tripp, is perhaps the least believable of all. In the 72 hours or so in which the novel takes place, he gets stoned a half-dozen times and downs innumerable varities of alcohol, and then drives around Pittsburgh and the nearby countryside, more or less without incident. During this time, he also writes and edits his complex, 2000-page novel. And he maneuvers among his wife, lover, a potential new lover, a visit by his best friend, and a promising student novelist. The fact that the book chronicles a turning point in his decline -- a classic "bottom" -- doesn't really redeem the hard-to-believe scenario.

Also, there are so many books that mine the same territory and in the same way that it feels superfluous to have someone as great as Chabon spend his time on this turf. I look forward to reading (and re-reading) Michael Chabon's works that explore more unusual worlds.
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