HERE WAS NO QUESTION THAT NO ONE NEEDED THE SEDER SCENE.
The book was coming along fine without
it. Actually, Michael Chabon's second
novel, Wonder Boys, just like his first —
the wildly successful The Mysteries of
Pittsburgh — had nothing whatsoever
to do with Judaism at all. Though different, both books were the
kind often labeled "rollicking romps" by the critics: both featured
appealingly disreputable characters who cheerfully careened their
way through a series of unlikely adventures set against a univer-
sity backdrop, with a genial overlay of sex and soft drugs. Much
like the kind of thing Kingsley Amis turned to pure gold in Lucky
Jim long ago. Updated a bit for modern times, of course.
So nothing in the plot actually called out for a seder. No one was
clamoring for it.
It was almost as if Michael Chabon wrote it in spite of himself.
But there's no denying the scene is a little gem. Naturally, there
are certain extraneous elements scattered around — three adopted
Korean Jews, a discarded tuba, a dead dog, a tired snake, a psy-
chotic young man with a movie star suicide fixation. The romp
category has its requirements.
But what makes the scene so funny and appealing is the almost
painful aura of familiarity it has for any suburban-raised Ameri-
can Jew. Forget all the Gen-X stuff— this is a seder we've all been
There is the traditional doling out of the paperback Haggadot,
for instance. The careful examination of the odd assortment of
yarmulkes, gleaned from bar mitzvahs, weddings, in one case a
funeral. Most of all there is the endless, moronic argument about
what is supposed to go in that mysterious sixth circle on the seder
"Matzoh! It's for the matzoh," declares Irving, the patriarch.
His wife slaps him sharply on the head. "That's ridiculous. What
am I supposed to do, crumble it up?"
The discussion goes on for pages, while the novel's main pro-
tagonist, Grady, a down-on-his-luck 40-ish writing teacher who is
not Jewish, and who is attending the seder at the home of his soon-
to-be-ex in-laws, tries to rack his marijuana-addled brain to re-
member whether this same discussion didn't in fact take place
Mr. Chabon, who at 32 is thoroughly enjoying the success of his
new book, has a theory about what it takes to become a writer.
You don't need to be an outlaw. "I just think you have to have paid
attention," he said, in an interview at his Los Angeles home.
The seder scene alone proves he obviously has.
Critics, though, especially in this country, are rarely content to
describe a writer as merely a modest observer. Especially when
that writer happens to be 24, strikingly good looking, and has sud-
denly burst on the scene as the author of a major best seller — the
exact position Mr. Chabon was in, back in 1988, with the publi-
cation of Mysteries.
For one thing, everyone was sure he was gay. After all, the book
dealt with a confused young man, just out of college, involved with
both a man and a woman. Plus the writer himself had a handsome
and sensitive face. Of course he had to be gay. Overnight, his name
started appearing on lists of gay writers in America.
Today, as his new book, Wonder Boys (Villard Books), zips up
the charts, everyone is having another reaction. "Now they think
I'm a complete pothead," said Mr. Chabon, grinning. (Grady, the
protagonist, has a truly phenomenal capacity for herbal intake.)
The truth? Michael Chabon is neither gay nor addicted to any-
thing stronger than green tamales, which he has developed quite
a tas Le for since moving to Los Angeles.
Not that he minded the misnomers. "I probably would have
thought the same thing, reading the books," he admitted. The ten-
dency of readers to mistake authors for their characters, after all,
is nothing new (critic Stanley Edgar Hyman once called it the
equivalent of expecting the author ofMoby Dick to be a large white
But in fact, Mr. Chabon happens to be happily mailied (to Ayelet
Waldman, a public defender), a joyous father (of 10-month-old
Sophie) and a perfectly nice guy who was raised on the distinctly
non-mean streets of Columbia, Md.
He's no party animal, either. "I'm a very domesticated person,"
he said, glancing at his daughter's playpen, piled high with toys,
which sits in the middle of his living room (Sophie herself could be
heard gurgling happily in another room.) "I like staying home,
cooking dinner, renting movies, going to movies — that's my idea
of excitement. I'm not a party-goer, not a big drug taker, not some-
body that tries to make the social scene."
He also is Jewish, as anyone reading that seder scene would
know in a microflash, though he himself thinks he had an easier
time writing it from the point of view of someone who was not: "It
was liberating. I guess it was easier to get the humor out of it and
not get caught up in all the angst." It left him freer to make wise-
cracks, like referring to the Jewish God's "yen for the smell of burnt
Yet oddly, with all the critical attention, no one has yet found
his Judaism significant enough to mention. Which, when you re-
member how authors like Bellow, Roth, etc., were all known as
Jewish first, writers second (like black and gay writers are today),
shows that some things actually do change, now and then.
If Mr. Chabon has no problem with labels thrown or not thrown
his way, there's a reason — he also has been the recipient of some
of the most ecstatic reviews in years. Hailed as a wonder boy him-
self when his first book was published, he is disproving the old saw
that says an author's second novel always gets dumped on (a col-
lection of short stories, published in between the two, also was well
received). If anything, the cheers have been louder this time around.
A fine, quirky, original writer whose controlled prose contrasts
vividly with the uncontrolled behavior he chronicles, Mr. Chabon
has a deft skill for crafting memorable lines. As far as being "the
young star of American letters" (Jonathan Yardley, Washington
Post, in an almost unprecedented swoon) or the voice of his gen-
eration, as others have insisted — time will tell.
A WRITER GROWS
lim and fit, much younger looking than 32, Mr. Chabon
has deep blue eyes, a shaggy mop of hair, and the sort
of face, all planes and angles, that invariably looks bet-
ter in person than in photographs. Sitting in his bright,
spare living room — a large framed poster of the Won-
der Boys jacket illustration provides one of the few
decorations — he discussed his life so far. Outside, a black-hatted
Orthodox man walked swiftly down the sunny street. In the heavily
Jewish section of the city where Mr. Chabon lives, near Fairfax
Boulevard, the glatt kosher signs grow thick as palm trees.
Columbia during the '60s and '70s was "a great place to be a lit-
tle kid," he remembered. Up to age 14 or so. "I don't think there's
a good place anywhere to be a 14-year-old," he said ruefully. "I was
awkward, shy, lonely, all those things." The town was "very lib-
eral, very integrated, I had lots of black friends. I thought racism
and discrimination were things of the past, like ancient history.
It was a rude awakening for me to get out in the real world."