If the essence of comedy is Muddle, our current poster boy is Grady Tripp, hero of Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys. Following his celebrated first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, and a collection of short stories, Chabon demonstrates his skill at piling up the complications in his protagonist's life and sorting them all out again, sort of, for our entertainment and edification.
Grady Tripp is an aging Wonder Boy of a fiction writer, one whose three-novel career is in full stumble, owing to an unmanageable, bloated manuscript littered with multiple endings he has reluctantly discarded as useless. He insulates himself from self-doubt in an ongoing cloud of marijuana smoke. His wife hates him, his married lover is pregnant with his child, the beautiful co-ed who lives downstairs is coming on to him, and a new and unknown medical problem causes him to pass out at all the wrong times.
His old college friend and current editor, Terry Crabtree, arrives in town for the annual WordFest writer's conference, secure in the knowledge that Grady's manuscript is unpublishable and that the conference will be awash in young men for him to seduce. After the Dean's dog is shot and dumped into the trunk of Grady's car (joining a tuba and followed by a boa constrictor), Grady learns the car he thought he owned is actually stolen. Then the complications set in.
This novel would rank as a minor one in the academic satire department, along with those of David Lodge, and Malcolm Bradbury, and measured by Amis' immortal Lucky Jim. What sets it apart is the quality of its writing.
Undressing his buxom lover "was an act of recklessness, a kind of vandalism, like releasing a zoo full of animals or blowing up a dam." He realizes that Terry, his editor, "was a kind of artistic Oppenheimer, careful to view the terrible flash of an author's ego only through a thick protective lens."
Grady tries to make a telephone call, but, alas, "it was a new phone with all the modern functions-caller fragmentation and speed garbling and so on-and it didn't so much ring as sound an alarum, like a Porsche being broken into in the middle of the night."
As a writer, regardless of how much his life disintegrates around him, he clings to the only life preserver he knows, his manuscript. After one of the objects of his sexual desire responds negatively to it, however, he realizes that it, too, is doomed.
"I felt intimations of disaster there; my book was at last going forth into the world, not, as I'd always imagined, like a great black streamline locomotive, fittings aglint, trailing tri-colored bunting, its steel wheels throwing sparks; 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."
Like Jane Smiley's hilarious Moo, Wonder Boys is set in academia. But while Moo is a broad satire of university life, Wonder Boys traces the disintegration of a single character's life and his attempt at shoring up what remains. Chabon's fine writing makes Wonder Boys a worthy read.