Michael Chabon: Smoke (Deal Me In 2016 – Week 29)

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After a while, Magee himself, who had been awake for some thirty-two hours, drifted into an easy sleep. He dreamed his usual dream, the one in which he had found his stuff and was on the mound at Three Rivers throwing seven different kinds of smoke.

“Smoke” by Michael Chabon asks the question: Which is better – to see your mediocre baseball career go further down the tubes or to be dead? Matt Magee, the mediocre pitcher, asks himself the question as he attends the funeral of his catcher, Eli Drinkwater.

Is there ever a specific answer? No. But as Magee interacts with an aging sportswriter and Eli’s wife and son, we can start to make out the answer in Magee’s mind. Of course, we can’t really get Drinkwater’s perspective because he is – uhh – dead.

While a very nice story, I admit I was a little disappointed as the writing style and humor didn’t hit me the way it did in Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (the topic of my first post here at Mirror With Clouds) or his collection of funny essays Manhood for Amateurs.  

I selected this story when I drew the Six of Diamonds for Week 29 of my Deal Me In 2016 short story project. My Deal Me In 2016 list can be found here. Deal Me In is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis. This story is included in my copy of Baseball’s Best Short Stories edited by Paul D. Staudohar.

 

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Books Read During The Lifespan of My Blog

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by The Broke and The Bookish.  So far it’s been a fun way to find out what others are reading and get some good ideas on books to read in the future.  This week the topic is Top Ten Books Read During the Lifespan of Your Blog.   Even though my blog is less than a year old and I haven’t read as many books compared to some blogs I’ve visited, it was still difficult to determine exactly which books I would include in my list.  Here’s what I came up with (not in any particular order):

1.  We Make A Life By What We Give by Richard B. Gunderman

2.  When I Was A Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson

3.  Bagombo Snuff Box by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

4.  The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

5.  The Sea Wolf by Jack London

6.  1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

7.  Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

8.  For Whom The Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

9.  White Fang by Jack London

10.  11-22-63 by Stephen King

Does anyone remember Wacky Packages?

My guess is the age of the average blogger would prevent many from remembering Wacky Packages.  I found them mentioned in Michael Chabon’s wonderful little book Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasure and Regrets of a Husband, Father and Son.  In his book, Chabon reveals his age and based on when the book was written, he would be just slightly older than myself.  His works have interested me for a while now; however, before this book, I had only read his novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, which happened to be the first book I wrote about on this blog.

Manhood for Amateurs By Michael Chabon

Manhood for Amateurs weaves Chabon’s incredibly sharp humor with pop culture both now and then (when he was a kid) and with some social commentary about the way he sees things and with personal stories of his family both then and now.  Because it’s written in the form of a series of short reflections about all of the above topics, it’s difficult to write about everything the book brings up.  However, I’ll mention a few.

His reference to Wacky Packages took me by surprise because I had completely forgotten about them; however, as a kid I remember walking to a Seven-Eleven in Fairborn, OH to buy them.  They were similar to Baseball cards in nature with the pink bubble gum stick made of who knows what.  The cards made fun of various food or household products by adding typical “gross out” characteristics that most kids loved.  Chabon includes these items in his thoughts on the ability of kids today to be able to “rebel” against the adult world.  In his mind, these cards were the beginning of adults taking advantage of and endorsing kids desire to “rebel” and therefore negating the rebellion.

He writes a heart-felt section about his wife and her sometimes superhuman qualities in dealing with him and their four kids.  He follows that section with an analysis of the female comic book superheroes he enjoyed as a kid.  He was partial to someone called Big Barda as opposed to the more popular ones such as Wonder Woman and Super Girl.  Then he relays a rather comical conversation he had with his sons while they were attempting to draw female super heroes.

Towards the end of the book he speaks of the phenomenon of radio songs becoming nostalgic.  It seems to him that the time it takes music to become “oldies”  is getting significantly shorter, something I seem to notice myself.  I could relate to the paragraph he wrote about radio songs reminding him of places and people of the past:

No medium is as sensuously evocative of the past as radio.  No other medium deploys that shocking full-immersion power of random rememberance.  But for the power to have its maximum impact, the process of remembering has to be random at both ends.  Joe Jackson’s “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” is playing over the PA in a Gap store at the Mall in Columbia on an unremarkable afternoon when you’re sixteen, and then one day you’re forty and driving to get your kid from nursery school and the song comes on, and there in your minivan you can smell the chlorine from the mall’s fountain, and hear your best friend telling you about Pauline Kael’s review of Last Tango In Paris as reprinted in Reeling, and see the vast blue wall of denim before you, and remember the world in which Bill Murray was God and Jimmy Carter was president and in which, at the Gap, they sold nothing but Levi’s.

Ultimately, I think what I enjoyed the most about this book was experiencing the point of view of a man who loves to read and write fiction.

“a marketplace of ten-cent dreams”

I’ve wanted to read Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay ever since I first saw it in the downtown Borders (may it rest in peace) in Indianapolis about 10 years ago.  I’d always thought a novel about comic books that could win the Pulitzer (2002, I think) would be a must-read.  I’m not sure why it took me 10 years to read it.  The novel reads, in many ways, like a history book and has cameo appearances by the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt, Salvador Dali and Orson Welles.  As the title would lead one to think, the plot revolves around the lives of Kavalier and Clay.

In 1939, Joe Kavalier, a Jewish Czech, makes a dramatic escape from Nazi-controlled Prague to meet up with his cousin, Sam Clay, in Brooklyn, New York to found Empire Comics during the “Golden Age” of comic books.  Joe’s calm, cool confidence and artistic ability leads them to success; however, he is always flagged by his fear and guilt about what is happening to his family in Eastern Europe, particularly his younger brother, Tom.  Sam’s insecurity-induced drive pushes them forward to further commercial success even if it doesn’t quite make up for his father’s lack of acceptance.

Here’s Chabon’s description of the rise of the comic book as entertainment : “Superman was born in the pages of a comic book, where he thrived, and after this miraculous parturition, the form finally began to emerge from its transitional funk, and to articulate a purpose for itself in the marketplace of ten-cent dreams…”.

Joe and Sam both struggle with their chosen art-form.  Can comic books truly be considered an art- form?  Can the course of the world, especially the world of Europe, in the late 1930’s, be changed by comic books?  Most of Sam and Joe’s early work depicts a superhero called “The Escapist” who battles characters of a German, Nazi nature, and from time to time actually takes on Hitler.  Can commercialism be considered art, can art be commercialized?  Sam and Joe end up with a certain amount of monetary success, but at one point Sam refers to it as a “lucrative swindle”.  After seeing “Citizen Kane”, Joe wonders if they could ever do anything on that level, artistically.

Joe’s life takes on comic-book proportions with adventures ranging from Antarctica to the top of the Empire State building.  Sam, on the other hand, follows a (not quite) Father-Knows-Best life during the 1950’s.  Rosa Luxembourg Saks is the artist that becomes entwined in both Joe’s and Sam’s life.  In her character, Chabon portrays a woman at the beginning of the gender-breaking social changes to take place during the next few decades.  Sam and Joe’s mentor, George Deasey, is an incredibly likable cynic.  One of my favorite scenes occurs when Sam and Joe have to grapple with Deasey’s advice that if they are creating comic books for anything other than money, they are doing it for the wrong reasons.

As time goes on, comic books become the focus of concern among certain government officials because of their escapist nature and the potential for negative effects on children.  At one point, Joe asks himself the question when thinking about the atrocities that took place in Europe during the war:  Is it any wonder  people want to escape?

Chabon’s detailed writing style and sharp wit makes this book a great read, but for some reason, it took me longer than usual to get through it.  I continue to ponder the novel’s questions about the role of art and pop culture as a means of social change, a means of making a living and a means of escape.

What do you think of Michael Chabon?  Have you read anything else he has written?  What about comic books?  Art, escapism, commercialism?