After a recent second viewing of the film adaptation of Michal Chabon’s novel Wonder Boys, I was inspired to read the novel itself. I tend to do this often; while many people read the book first, then see the movie once it’s adapted, on several occasions I’ve found myself reading the source material after checking out the movie. Maybe it’s a product of not reading enough when I was younger.
The novel (and subsequently, the film) tells the story of Grady Tripp, a quickly aging writer who has worked as a professor for a Pittsburgh university for the past 7 years. This is also the amount of time he has spent writing his book (also called Wonder Boys, thus the title of the novel). While Tripp has taught student writers of varying degrees of skill and output, his own novel has ballooned to a 2,000 plus page behemoth. As the story opens, Tripp’s editor Terry Crabtree (portrayed vividly in the film by Robert Downey, Jr.) pays a visit for the university’s annual WordFest, and expects an update on the state of Tripp’s latest masterwork. Tripp also discovers that his mistress (the university’s chancellor) is pregnant with his child. All of this takes place on the very day that Tripp’s wife, Emily, leaves him.
To complicate matters further for our hero, he experiences a string of misadventures with an alienated but talented student, James Leer. James is a bit of an outcast. Instead of bonding with fellow students or other writers, he identifies with 40’s era cinema in order to escape from his sheltered upbringing. The comic escapades begin when Leer crashes a party at the chancellor’s house, and in an attempt to rescue an assaulted Tripp, he shoots the chancellor’s husband’s blind dog. Tripp assumes responsibility and the two of them escape before the dog’s murder is detected. Ultimately, Tripp decides to allow Leer to accompany him on a quest to have a discussion with his estranged wife on their future, while discovered that shooting the dog is not Leer’s only crime.
Once I began reading, I was surprised to discover just how closely the film follows the novel. The timeline, many of the character descriptions, even a good amount of the dialogue are taken directly from the source. This has been a rarity in many of the film adaptations I’ve seen. The story sticks very close, until branching out when Tripp and Leer travel to the home of Emily’s parents to celebrate Passover. This makes a large portion of the story arc in the novel. It’s altered and greatly condensed in the film, and while the film doesn’t suffer from the changes, it makes for wonderful reading in the novel. These chapters tell you much more about Tripp’s relationship with his wife and her family, and inject Leer into a family atmosphere that, while still dysfunctional, is much warmer than the oppressive family dynamic he’s known.
Ultimately, it’s a story of life, love, loss, drugs, treasured memorabilia, and even transvestitism. Each character is likable, even when it’s revealed that most of them have committed some despicable actions. Chabon’s writing style is fairly straight forward, but he also adds a bit of flavor with injections of colorful descriptions and wit that doesn’t become pretentious. Whether or not you’ve seen the film, I’d definitely recommend the novel for a fun and interesting read.
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Image courtesy of Access Hollywood