“At the beginning of the summer I had lunch with my father, the gangster, who was in town for the weekend to transact some of his vague business. We’d just come to the end of a period of silence and ill will—a year I’d spent in love with and in the same apartment as an odd, fragile girl whom he had loathed, on sight, with a frankness and a fury that were not at all like him. But Claire had moved out the month before. Neither my father nor I knew what to do with our new freedom.”
That’s the opening paragraph of Michael Chabon’s The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. Contrast it with the opening paragraphs of Steven Millhauser’s Portrait of a Romantic:
“Mother of myself, myself I sing: lord of loners, duke of dreams, king of the clowns. Youth and death I sing, sunbeams and moonbeams, laws and breakers of laws. I Arthur Grumm, lover and killer.
“And you, dark angels of my adolescence: you too I sing, O restless ones. Setting forth this day in my twenty-ninth year, on the voyage of my dreaming youth. I, Arthur Grumm . . .”
And the second paragraph of Stephen King’s The Body:
“I was twelve going on thirteen when I first saw a dead human being. It happened in 1960, a long time ago . . . although sometimes it doesn’t seem that long to me. Especially on the nights I wake up from dreams where the hail falls into his open eyes.”
Finally, J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye:
“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them. They’re quite touchy about anything like that, especially my father. They’re nice and all — I’m not saying that — but they’re also touchy as hell. Besides, I’m not going to tell you my whole goddam autobiography or anything. I’ll just tell you about this madman stuff that happened to me around last Christmas just before I got pretty run-down and had to come out here and take it easy. I mean that’s all I told D.B. about, and he’s my brother and all. He’s in Hollywood. That isn’t too far from this crumby place, and he comes over and visits me practically every week end. He’s going to drive me home when I go home next month maybe. He just got a Jaguar. One of those little English jobs that can do around two hundred miles an hour. It cost him damn near four thousand bucks. He’s got a lot of dough, now. He didn’t use to. He used to be just a regular writer, when he was home. He wrote this terrific book of short stories, “The Secret Goldfish.” It was about this little kid that wouldn’t let anybody look at his goldfish because he’d bought it with his own money. It killed me. Now he’s out in Hollywood, D.B., being a prostitute. If there’s one thing I hate, it’s the movies. Don’t even mention them to me.”
Each author is making a candid and fairly transparent offer of a coming of age story to the prospective reader. Which (if any) offer do you accept, and why? I say “you” because the process is quite personal and individual.
Perhaps the initial question is whether you want to read a first-person coming of age story. Are you interested at the moment in how some big event changed the life view of an adolescent male? If so, which one?
King is simple and direct. Chabon is complex and direct. Millhauser is complex and indirect. Salinger is simple and indirect. I suppose lesson one is that the combination of complexity and indirectness is unlikely to lead to wide readership. Amongst the other three possibilities, simplicity appears to rule.
To be continued . . .