One complaint you can make about Michael Chabon is that the characters in his books always behave a bit too much like, well, characters in books. They smoke cigarettes with stylish aplomb, fall inconveniently in love, drink too much, nurse their melancholy too tenderly and too long. Their lives are a mess, but never so much that they can’t be redeemed, on the last page, by one grand moment of heroism or epiphany.
So? Books are books, after all, and reality is reality, and instead of complaining when art fails to imitate life, it’s more interesting to think about why life doesn’t more often resemble art.
Chabon’s acclaimed first novel, “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh,” inspired widespread comparisons to the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald, although they had more to do with the gorgeousness of the characters and of the prose (and of the then 24-year-old author) than with the themes. In “Werewolves in Their Youth,” Chabon’s second collection of short stories, he moves deeper into genuine Fitzgerald territory — that place where young married couples dance separately with strangers, where former football heroes stare down the dwindling time clock of youth, where the houses mock their inhabitants and every party is a disaster waiting to happen.
And like Fitzgerald’s sentences, Chabon’s can be as perfect and self-contained as plovers’ eggs. On a football hero: “He was used from long habit to thinking of his body as having a certain monetary value or as capable of being translated, mysteriously, into money, and if it were possible, he would have paid a handsome sum to purchase himself.” On a house: “It had an asymmetrical shape, a ribbon window in the living room, and a jutting flat roof and, like many modernist houses that have been long inhabited by humans, a defeated aspect, a look of having been stranded, of despairing of the world for which it had been intended but which never came to pass.”
The nine stories here are closely linked by theme: All but one are, in one way or another, about divorce. (The odd story out is a neat little experiment in pulp horror ` la Lovecraft, and its subject is completely different: a town where the women eat their menfolk, piece by piece.) The “werewolves” in the title story are two misfit 11-year-old boys whose separate fantasy worlds connect when one of them is expelled from school and the other faces the breakup of his parents’ marriage.
But a Gothic subtext runs through all the tales, and it fits surprisingly well. All the stories are also, in one way or another, about growing up — particularly about that stage of the process that occurs in one’s late 20s and 30s. For Chabon, adulthood itself is a sort of lycanthropic transformation, in which innocent bodies sprout hair and claws, innocent love becomes insatiable loathing and innocent dreams turn into frustrated ambition.
Unlike a true Gothic fantasist, though, and unlike Fitzgerald, Chabon is too fond of his characters to send them hurtling into the abyss. He always gives them one last chance to make good. In some cases (“House Hunting,” “Son of the Wolfman”), this affection makes for his loveliest stories; in others (“Green’s Book,” “Spikes”), it crosses the line into sentimentality. It also creates a certain sameness of rhythm that you wish Chabon would try harder to break. Still, without their author’s generosity of spirit and his sense of humor, these stories would lose a considerable part of their charm. And charm is an undervalued quality these days, in fiction as in life.