Michael Chabon has earned a Pulitzer Prize and developed a symbiotic relationship with Hollywood -- but the accomplishment to be envied, really, is how his literary work continues to evolve.
The author's first two novels, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and Wonder Boys, are both famously influenced by Chabon's experience as a University of Pittsburgh undergraduate writing major. In Mysteries (1988), protagonist Art Bechstein is a jaded twentysomething Pitt student who frequents Hillman Library between misadventures. Wonder Boys goes one step further, chronicling a weekend in the life of Grady Tripp, a professor at a fiction program at an unnamed Pittsburgh university.
While both novels were well received by critics, by the time Wonder Boys emerged, in 1995, Chabon was eager to compose something completely different. In fact, he had spent five years after Mysteries toiling on a 1,000-page epic about baseball and architecture. But Fountain City hadn't come together, and it took a review of Wonder Boys in the Washington Post to encourage Chabon to try again. (The review was favorable, but its author tacitly challenged Chabon to reach beyond his own experiences, noting that his apprenticeship, while "brilliant," was over.)
In 2000, Chabon, a former comic-book aficionado, published the 636-page The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Whereas his first two, and thinner, volumes combined personal experience with delightful fictions -- Art's father is a Jewish gangster -- Kavalier & Clay seemed to start from scratch, chronicling the adventures of two young comic-book writers in 1930s Brooklyn and their make-believe heroes, including The Escapist, a figure who "roam[s] the globe, performing amazing feats and coming to the aid of those who languish[es] in tyranny's chains."
A unique blend of science fiction and fantasy mixed with classic influences, Kavalier & Clay marked a major departure for Chabon, and his work has continued to lean toward the fantastic. In 2004, he published The Final Solution, a novella described as a feat of "literary ventriloquism," in which Chabon channels Sir Arthur Conan Doyle by portraying an 84-year-old Sherlock Holmes in 1940s England.
Chabon's latest is The Yiddish Policeman's Union, a murder mystery that takes place in a post-World War II Jewish homeland -- in Alaska, rather than Palestine -- as actually once suggested by the Roosevelt administration. The novel is due out in May; meanwhile, on Feb. 5, Chabon visits the Drue Heinz Lectures with his wife, Ayelet Waldman, a writer whose own latest novel is Love and Other Impossible Pursuits.
With his successful shift from semi-autobiographical novels to fantastic fiction, Chabon, now 43, has set himself apart from other novelists. Even as he furthers his Hollywood pursuits -- a Wonder Boys film, a Mysteries movie in post-production, a story credit on Spider-Man 2, a Kavalier & Clay screenplay in the works -- he has perhaps shown himself to be his own brand of superhero, one who seems to have transformative powers.
Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman at the Drue Heinz Lecture Series 7:30 p.m. Mon., Feb. 5. Carnegie Music Hall, 4400 Forbes Ave., Oakland. $19 ($8 students). 412-622-8866