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Tucson Weekly Fourth Dimension

Michael Chabon's Fourth Work Of Fiction Both Disturbs And Delights.

By Randall Holdridge

MARCH 8, 1999: 

Werewolves in Their Youth, by Michael Chabon (Random House). Cloth, $22.95.

WHEN FACED WITH difficult family relations, the protagonists in Michael Chabon's new stories, man and boy alike, harden their hearts or draw into their shells. But vulnerability in these male carapaces, a softness in their hearts, yields compassion at moments of crisis. Usually they pay a high cost in self-sacrifice, but they're rewarded by transfiguring new esteem.

Werewolves in Their Youth is Chabon's fourth book of fiction, and his second of short stories. To delight cynics, Chabon retains the elegantly phrased drolleries which are the signature of his style. They drop suddenly on the reader, as when Harris Fetko, a football player, is called home by his father, a domineering old coach who bullied him in his youth: "A feeling of remorse took wing in his chest, but with an old, sure instinct, he caught it and neatly twisted its neck."

"The Harris Fetko Story" is representative of Chabon's concerns in this collection. Harris is a star athlete--unfortunately for him, his celebrity figures in a failing venture, an indoor football league with franchises in Tacoma, Boise, Saskatoon, Spokane and Great Falls. His father, the legendary Norm Harris, once coached at Denver. Norm is a dreamer, and Harris is one of his projects, the result of an unsuccessful marriage to a woman selected for her genetic potential to breed a superstar. Raised under his father's unrelenting doctrines, Harris "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 somehow possible, he would have paid a high sum to purchase himself."

The old coach's now forgotten name can't sustain his failing auto dealership. His hope lies in a greater vision, received in a dream, of a new professional sport called Powerball and played "by men in garish uniforms that were part samurai armor and part costume de ballet...swinging across the playing arena from a striped rappelling cable." Norm needs Harris as a headline name for the launch of a Powerball league, but father and son haven't spoken for years.

Harris is wary when invited to the ritual circumcision of an infant half-brother, spawn of his father's recent second marriage. Against his better judgment, Harris attends the bris at the ramshackle auto lot. To prevent a repeat of his own harried youth, he tucks the bundled infant under his arm and sprints across the lot into the adjacent woods, stumbling onto the demonstration Powerball arena his father has carved among the trees, crudely, childishly, with "misapplied love and erroneous hopefulness." Harris is "troubled by an unexpected spasm of forgiveness" and the doomed reconciliation is sealed.

A similar dynamic shadows the marriages depicted in Werewolves. In "Mrs. Box," Chabon telescopes the history of one couple succinctly: "There had been an extramarital kiss, entrepreneurial disaster, a miscarried baby, sexual malaise, and then very soon they had been forced to confront the failure of an expedition for which they had set out remarkably ill-equipped, like a couple of trans-Arctic travelers, who through lack of preparation find themselves stranded and forced to eat their dogs."

In "House Hunting," the collapsing two-year marriage of Daniel and Christy is saved when they have their first moment of real sexual passion in the master bedroom of a house they're touring with a seedy Realtor, whose own marriage has broken up in the same house. Ironically, they had always viewed sex as perilous, while marriage was "a safe house in a world of danger."

Then there is Kohn, the solitary guitar maker in "Spikes," who's summoned by his exhausted lawyer: "If he once again failed to show, his lawyer regretted she would have to toss his file into a bottom drawer, send him a bill, and forget about him. His wife, and her lawyer, would then be free to reap uncontested the rewards of his recalcitrance." So Kohn sets out for his appointment, but stops in the driveway to talk with Bengt, a solitary neighbor boy conspicuously wearing his elderly uncle's ancient, outsized baseball shoes. Pudgy, clumsy, bespectacled, the boy is waiting for a ride to much-dreaded Little League tryouts. Kohn sympathizes, and in solidarity drives the boy to practice, where he witnesses the boy's anticipated humiliation. The other kids "were skinny, mean-looking boys, scratch hitters and spikers of second basemen, dirt players, brushback artists...Standing with the other boys Bengt reminded Kohn of the leather button used in his family for many years to replace the shoe in Monopoly, ranged at Go alongside the race car, the top hat, and the scrappy little dog." Kohn stays on to give what support he can to hapless Bengt, missing the appointment with his lawyer. The title story is another picture of the awkward world of misfit boys.

Two of the stories in the book are offbeat treatments of contemporary hot-button issues. In "Son of the Wolfman," a woman unable to conceive a child after 10 years of married life is impregnated in an assault by a serial rapist. She decides to have the baby, against the wishes of her husband, who is crushed by the blooming changes he observes in his wife. And "Green's Book" imagines a divorced father's frightened moment when his 4-year-old daughter wants him to join her in the bath tub, just as coincidence reunites him after many years with a now robustly sexual and ubiquitously pierced young woman, Ruby. Ruby was also age 4 when, as her 13-year-old baby-sitter, Green touched her unformed breasts. His dilemma is made all the more ripe by the fact that Green is a psychologist writing a book on child-rearing, the precepts of which, if followed, would force him to confront his most disturbing memory.

Although Werewolves is padded by a pedestrian horror story among certain other less-successful selection, the whole of its stories is imaginative, various, witty and consistently reassuring that there is something fundamentally decent about men.

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