Able to leap over literary barriers in a single book

Chabon ranges from Kabbalah to Captain Nemo

When Michael Chabon was just 8 years old, baseball broke his heart. He can remember watching the Senators on TV with his dad in a Washington suburb. "Then they were packed up in the dead of the night and shipped off to Texas and became the Rangers," he says. "How can that be? How can they let that happen? It's like trying to explain to my children, how can an election possibly be stolen? And, of course, Texas, once again, was involved there."

Such sentiments conjure all of Mr. Chabon's sensibilities: childlike wonder hardened by adult reality, blended with humor and resignation.

Over the years, he's switched baseball affiliations a couple of times, first to the Pittsburgh Pirates and, later, the San Francisco Giants, nearer his Berkeley home. But Chabon's literary career is far less checkered than his baseball romances: At 23, his thesis manuscript was sent by a professor to an agent and garnered the highest advance ever paid for a debut literary novel. "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh" became a bestseller, followed by another hit, "Wonder Boys," a winking nod to fellow writers blessed and burdened by early literary success. In 2000, Chabon took all the promise of those works and melded it with a childhood passion - comic books - to write, "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," which won a Pulitzer Prize.

Today, he is, simply, the coolest writer in America. This month, he released two new books. The first is a novella, "The Final Solution," evincing, in part, a long-acknowledged love of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's works. The second is a collection of spine-tingling short stories he edited for McSweeney's called "Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories." Contributors include Joyce Carol Oates, Stephen King, Roddy Doyle, and Jonathan Lethem. Next fall he'll deliver a new novel, "The Yiddish Policemen's Union," which involves, among other things, a modern-day Jewish homeland in Alaska.

As he gleefully points out, his desire is nothing less than annihilation of literary categories - a we-are-the-word gumbo where, say, Neal Stephenson and Robert Louis Stevenson are separated by a couple of letters rather than entire sections.

His new novella is a fine display of such vision, pairing a delightful procedural with a haunting meditation on mortality. Chabon sacrifices neither pure entertainment nor literary achievement in the process.

"When the story came in last year, there was a long pause about that," says Brigid Hughes, executive editor of The Paris Review, which originally published "The Final Solution" in its summer 2003 issue. "He brought this whole idea of interest in the genre and genre-writing, which had traditionally been isolated from literary writing. It was brilliant."

In fact, his introduction in the latest McSweeney's volume fixates on the word genre. But, just as one fears a bout with literary pretension, Chabon's wit rescues him: "Like most people who worry about whether it's better to be wrong or pretentious when pronouncing the word genre, I'm always on the lookout for a chance to drop the name of Walter Benjamin."

During a recent speech at the Novello Festival in North Carolina, Chabon appears in writerly garb: rimless glasses, forelocks reminiscent of Superman's squiggles, rumpled pants topped with a checked sport coat. He moves from Kabbalah to Captain Nemo and tosses in the occasional self-deprecating reference to his literary credentials. The Pulitzer Prize, Chabon says, "gives a guy, however mistaken, a sense of authority."

Success makes him uneasy ("I never trust it"), but Chabon seems poised for a lengthy run of adoration from critics and readers alike. "He's grabbing these huge issues but making them accessible at the same time," says Tina Jordan, a senior editor at Entertainment Weekly. "He's remarkably adept, for example, at combining gay and straight characters. A real mix of people populate his books."

Two years ago, he proved just as deft with young people as adults. His children's novel, "Summerland," introduced Ethan Feld, an awkward, unathletic boy who must master baseball to rescue the world.

In his spare time, Chabon knocks out the occasional screenplay, including a credit on last summer's "Spider-Man 2." But as Spider-Man can attest, with great power comes great responsibility. In a literary sense, Chabon seems intent on fulfilling the lofty expectations set forth for him. Most days, he writes for several hours at home, sandwiched around time with his four children and a jog through the neighborhood. His wife, Ayelet Waldman, a public defender turned stay-at-home mystery writer, shares carpool duties with him.

Creative inspiration is a myth, he says, and he frets over what might lurk beneath the lavish reviews and jacket blurbs. "There's always a voice in my head saying, 'Oh, what do they know? They don't know the real you, the total reject.' You're alone in your office with your computer and the praise doesn't help you."

Chabon acknowledges his good fortune, but sees more pragmatism than glamour in his movie dabbling. "I keep doing this Hollywood screenwriting work because it pays really well and because it's fun," he says. "But I have children. And I feed them and take care of them." In other words, Chabon may be a literary Superman, but he lives like Clark Kent.

Erik Spanberg is a freelance writer in Charlotte, N.C.

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