Cover image of "Wonder Boys," a novel of life on campus

Perhaps this has happened to you, too. You read a book that you know is supposed to be funny, but it just doesn’t work for you. The story is absurd, so the author’s intent is clear, and the complications that ensue are worthy of the Marx Brothers. It seems as though it all should be hilarious. But instead it just seems, well . . . stupid. You can’t understand why characters who are portrayed as intelligent could possibly contrive to tie themselves in knots in such silly ways. And, as you can tell, that’s how I experienced my reading of Michael Chabon’s early novel of life on campus, Wonder Boys.

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

A formulaic novel of life on campus

Like so many authors of “serious fiction,” Michael Chabon began his writing career with a coming-of-age novel (The Mysteries of Pittsburgh) and followed it up with one about . . . guess what? . . . a novelist. Yes, that’s Wonder Boys. The title refers to protagonist Grady Tripp’s sprawling and incoherent magnum opus. And, like so many other novels about novelists, it’s self-indulgent to the core.

Now, I recognize that the book was a bestseller when it was published, was adapted into a film starring Michael Douglas, and was a hit with critics. For example, in his review in the New York Times (April 9, 1995), Robert Ward asks, “Who needs another wacky novel about college and teaching and the writing life? But in ‘Wonder Boys,’ Mr. Chabon proves that the oldest myth is true—in the hands of a talented writer, there’s no such thing as an unpromising subject.”

Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon (1995) 368 pages ★★★☆☆

Photo of the stars of the film "Wonder Boys," based on a book about life on campus
Michael Douglas as Grady Tripp and Tobey Maguire as his student, James Leer, in the 2000 film, Wonder Boys. Image: Plugged-In

Yes, the critics raved about this novel of life on campus

Similarly, Jason Sheehan begins his review on NPR (October 19, 2014) by quoting a passage from the novel: “‘Although it was only nine o’clock he had already gone once around the pharmacological wheel to which he’d 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.’ That, my friends, is one of those lines for which books were invented. For which awards were invented.” Yes, Chabon is a masterful stylist. But he seems incapable of writing a sentence without a simile or a metaphor. Enough is enough.

But there I go again, against the grain. As Publishers Weekly observed in an undated review that “Mixing comic—even slapstick—events with the serious theme of bright promise gone awry, Chabon has produced an impeccably constructed novel that sparkles with inventiveness and wit neatly permeated with rue.”

You get the point. I’m an outlier. And, truth to tell, that surprises me greatly. I loved several other Michael Chabon novels. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Telegraph Avenue. And, especially, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. Go figure.

So, what’s it really about?

Professor Grady Tripp has spent the past seven years attempting to finish what is clearly an unfinishable novel. His current draft runs to 2,600 pages. And now his editor and best friend, Terry Crabtree, has come to campus for the weekend intent on forcing him to cough up the draft. Which Grady, who is no dope, will simply not do. Somehow, Grady, Terry, and James Leer, one of Grady’s most promising creative writing students, end up together in a series of wholly unlikely misadventures over the ensuing two days.

A transvestite, a stolen tuba, a boa constrictor, and a gun-toting murderer will somehow get into the action. And the weekend will close, unsurprisingly, with Terry publishing James Leer’s novel but not Grady’s. There are love stories involved, too. Terry, who is gay, falls for James. And Grady, who is married, has fallen in love with the Chancellor, with whom he has been having a long, passionate affair. Now you know.

About the author

Photo of Michael Chabon, author of this novel of life on campus
Michael Chabon in 2019. Image: Gage Skidmore via Wikipedia

Michael Chabon is best known for his 2000 novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. But he has also written eight other novels, two collections of short stories, four books of nonfiction, and two series of comic books. Along the way he has garnered a list of literary awards as long as his arm. Chabon received a BA from the University of Pittsburgh and an MA in Creative Writing from the University of California, Irvine. He was born in Washington, DC, in 1963. He has been married to his second wife, Ayelet Waldman, since 1993. They live in Berkeley, California.

For more reading

I’ve read most of Michael Chabon’s novels but just two of them recently enough to have reviewed them here previously:

You’ll also find great reading at Top 10 great popular novels and 20 most enlightening historical novels.

And you can always find my most popular reviews, and the most recent ones, on the Home Page.