by Stephen E. Abbott
Chabon's first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, though noticeably constrained by youthful inexperience and the gimcrackery of MFA rote, nonetheless held enfolded within its pages the flicker of something wonderful yet to be. Wonderboys, Chabon's second novel, born out of a five-and-a-half-year effort writing a never-published, over 1,000-page tome called Fountain City, is a hilarious and mournful hosanna to this failure. At once a lamentation of lost youth and idealisms and a paean to his own ripening as a writer and as a man, the book displayed a rare delicacy of language, a profound intelligence, and an intuitive gift for effortless humor and sincere emotion. Then, with The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay—which is indeed brilliant, epic, beautiful, and heartbreaking—Chabon brought home the Pulitzer and established his reputation as one of the best writers anywhere.
Summerland is Chabon's first children's book, and it is crafted with undeniable charm and a deep reverence for the conventions of the form. It is the familiar story of an awkward and outcast young boy, Ethan Feld, who, when forced by necessity and altered by circumstances, awakens into an unlikely hero. Feld, the "worst baseball player in the history of Clam Island, Washington," is recruited by Chiron Brown, a nine fingered, ex-Negro League ballplayer turned pan-dimensional scout specializing in the finding and training of champions. It turns out that Feld is needed to save the universe from the scheming of Coyote, the original folkloric trickster himself, who has devised a scheme to hasten the end of the world. Prematurely forced into heroic service, the pubescent Feld is flung into an alternate dimension governed by Native American mythology and the rules and regs of baseball to lead a rag-tag assortment of mediocre ballplayers against some of the universe's toughest teams. In this race to the bottom of the final inning, Feld must save his captive father and thwart Coyote's attempt to poison the Tree of Life.
A consciously constructed pastiche, Summerland is an assemblage of numerous far-flung odds and ends of Americana. Incorporating everything from sasquatch to baseball to Paul Bunyan to feathered Indians, Chabon has steeped his tale in our country's collective mythologies. In the end, however, the result is more maceration than distillation. What is so out of keeping here is that the first half of the book works marvelously, establishing a rich setting and an array of complex characters that are trademark Chabon, seemingly presaging even better things to come. As anyone who once played little league and sucked at it can verify, Chabon nails the feeling of hopeless deep-right, daisy-picking alienation that casts a pall over an otherwise sunny summer day. But as the story unfolds a strange kind of entropy takes hold; the plot moves quicker and quicker, all the while getting thinner and more scattered until it begins to resemble something approximating a big-budget blockbuster: several big, showy things happen all in a row, but without the depth or vision of the earlier pages.
Oscar Wilde once said, "Miracles always happen. That is why one cannot believe in them," and he might have been speaking of Summerland. Beyond the suspiciously providential plot (whenever a character gets in a pinch some improbable magic or escape route is conveniently introduced), the book culminates in a Deus ex Machina to end all Deus ex Machinas. The result is that many threads are left dangling. For example, Chabon establishes a binary theme wherein the apocalypse being played out in one dimension is mirrored by the destructive practices of a real estate developer, TransForm Properties, on the pristine shoreline of Clam Island. The dénouement of this subplot is given in a mere three sentences: "The bulldozers were gone, the earthmovers and backhoes, all the warning signs that had been thrown up by the minions of TransForm Properties. But that was not all. The birch trees had grown back, to very nearly their former stature, or else they had simply been replaced, in the flood of healing." Although such neat endings are often dark and ironic commentaries on human frailty and expectations, this does not appear to be the intention here. And after having introduced environmental themes as serious as pollution and over-development—realities, mind you, with potentially disastrous consequences for future generations—it seems irresponsible to leave children with the expectation that such difficulties can be readily averted by the unlikelihood of story-book miracles. Certainly, maintaining a sense of awe and mystery is essential, but when magic and miracles are too easily happened upon, little of lasting worth can remain. To Chabon's credit, the story is captivating, and there are many deft maneuvers and tight twists of plot as well as a genuine effort not to write down to his younger audience, but the overall picture hangs too crookedly, marring its effect.
Perhaps Summerland should have been written as three books, for it seems too rushed, too small, as if it were a diversion or a side effort and not the main project. Still, the reader cannot help but delight in the disarming coziness and straightforward beauty of Chabon's writing. What's there on the page is great stuff, but without the scope or fullness of a Narnia or Middle Earth, or even of Kavalier and Clay's New York. As it goes along what's missing from Summerland begins to assert itself, to slowly creep its way into the tale, until you cannot help but wonder what might have been—those saddest words of tongue or pen.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002