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Posted at 6:00 AM ET, 12/11/2009

The Riffs Interview: 'Kavalier & Clay's' MICHAEL CHABON: In truth, he's Washington D.C.'s own

By Michael Cavna


It was in suburban Maryland, alone in a rented room, that MICHAEL CHABON -- future recipient of much critical fawning, "novelist of his generation" encomiums and the Pulitzer, Nebula and Hugo prizes -- first learned that he was a failure.

Today, so many years and triumphs later, Chabon is sitting, beaming, in a velvety club chair in the lobby of Washington's Hotel Monaco, seemingly dogged these days only by his good fortune and talent. If this is the very picture of nagging defeat and self-doubt, well, we should all be so accursed.

At 46, Chabon lends the double-entendre to the phrase "leaving Maryland for good." Not long after departing his native turf, Chabon began to find literary success setting his fictions everywhere from Manhattan to Alaska. It is only in his recent memoir, his first nonfiction work, "Manhood for Amateurs," that he has plainly embraced home, the cradle of his fertile failure.

The memoir and the historic Hotel Monaco must be working a collective magic on this day, because Chabon is morphing into a helluva decent docent: He unfurls anecdotes about the vanished department stores of D.C. and the developer-felled forests of Columbia and his relatives' former home in Falls Church. This is the desultory Nostalgic Washington of Michael Chabon.

Only now, as you listen to the D.C.-born writer unspool engaging local yarns -- he is mostly upbeat, only occasionally lapsing into a sort of bittersweet Rick Steves -- the realization smacks you till it smarts: Pittsburgh and San Francisco and New York and even Irvine do not deserve so much credit.

By all rights, Michael Chabon should be considered a Washington writer. If was we, after all, who first failed him -- and what better creative jump-start can a region bestow a triumphant writer than that?

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Chabon was age 10 or so, he says, when his mother funded her elder son's rabid interest in comics: She rented a multipurpose room at Columbia's Wilde Lake Village Center so her Michael -- an avid fan of "Spider-Man" creator Stan Lee (with whom he would share a screen credit three decades later) -- could launch the Columbia Comic Book Club.

Young Michael wrote the club's introductory newsletter, then waited for a like-minded throng to arrive. And waited. Save for one quickly exiting boy, Chabon was alone with the chairs. The first and only C.C.B.C. "meeting" was a bust. And so, in a way, was young Michael's self-perception.

"That was the moment when I began to think of myself as a failure," Chabon writes in "Manhood." "It's a habit I never lost."


Today, in this Penn Quarter hotel, Chabon befits a whole different class of room. This luxe lobby reeks of eclectic D.C. nostalgia, which fairly can be said of Chabon himself. (The hotel, it's worth noting, sits in Washington's first all-marble building -- half of which was created by the Washington Monument designer, the other half by the architect of the Capitol. When Chabon waxes historic, he does not fool around. )

Chabon, now a Bay Area resident, radiates gentleness and warmth. He compliments a wearer's porkpie hat. He apologizes when he must take a call. And he's patient as he explains why he won't be scooting up the interstate to visit Columbia.

"There's no time on this trip," says Chabon, scratching his graying beard-scruff. "It's been a few years since I've been able to get back."

Not that Chabon reveals any need to get back -- get back to where he once was wronged. From a childhood often explored near the Potomac's banks, the author now fishes some mightily stocked memory banks: recounted adventures of a boy's first freedoms and discoveries and stoically absorbed life-blows. The Mysteries of Patuxent.

Between waxing and waning decades, Chabon -- best known for such novels as "Wonder Boys" and "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay" -- has decided to take a measure of his manhood. To Chabon, though, manhood is deeply steeped in a sense of physical place -- the paths he has trod to get from son to husband to father.

It is a manhood, too, largely sprouted from a deep labyrinth of local roots. In his memoir, the once-peripatetic Chabon stakes a claim to Maryland as the nearest, dearest thing he's ever had to a home state. Washington is on the ticket, too, as his childhood's frequent home district.

Literarily, our wonder boy has come home.


The recent past must be set in the middle-distance, because that is where Chabon is peering with a wide-eyed focus. The writer grows animated as he begins to tick off the memory-freighted stations of his youth: the Garfinckel's department store on F Street NW (now a Borders). Sewell's Orchards in Columbia (now a housing development). The original Ledo Pizza in Adelphi (scheduled to move to a new location later this year, according to its Web site).

There, too, were his relatives' homes that straddled D.C.: one set of grandparents lived in Falls Church, the other on Cherry Tree Lane in Silver Spring.

The novelist also itemizes some favorite sites that are still, thankfully, with us: The Uptown Theater on Connecticut NW (Chabon: "The site of a holy pilgrimage to the premiere of Francis Ford Coppola's legendary 'Apocalypse Now,' in 1979"). Cole Field House ("First rock concert - Queen, with the opening act Thin Lizzy," 1977). And, of course, the Natural History Museum.

Chabon, who is married to writer Ayelet Waldman, with whom he has four children, attaches not only memories to his Nostalgic Washington, but also vivid meanings.

The lifelong comics fan was 11, he says, when his father, Robert, a physician and a lawyer, was driving him to Geppi's Comics World in Catonsville -- "possibly the only comic-book store in that area at the time," Chabon says -- when Dad informed his son that "he and my mother were separating."

The world of comics is so rife with lost fathers; suddenly, Chabon had a comics connection to "losing" his, as he would go on to split time between his divorced parents' homes -- mostly in Mom's Maryland, several months a year in Dad's Pittsburgh. (Chabon later attended Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh before grad school at UC Irvine, where his master's thesis evolved into his breakthrough 1988 bestseller, "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh.")

Chabon also attaches significant meaning to the topographic freedom he had as a bike-riding child of the '70s, before developers had carved up so much of Columbia's woods. This, he says, is where on his Coke-can red Schwinn with the banana seat, he could imagine adventures in the forests lush with links to the past -- the whiff of history sparked by the residue of such Indian names as Patapsco and Wicomico and Patuxent.

"The bike path through the woods between High Tor Hill [a street] and Hittman Pond in Phelps Luck, Columbia," recalls Chabon, as the middle-distance seems to draw near. This was "my Sherwood, Gettysburg and Narnia."

Chabon also pedaled his way through glorious worlds imagined at Columbia's Symphony Woods -- "then the site of the town's Renaissance Festival," he says. (If memory be the music of the soul, Chabon is poised to play on.)

The memoirist lingers on the scent of citrus past, in glorious old Sewell's Orchard. "Peaches, strawberries, apples," he says. "You could pick. A surviving scrap of old rural Howard County at the edge of Columbia. Now, a housing development."

Between the woods and the orchards, Chabon pauses to mourn the largely lost freedoms of the American childhood, which he says is now so heavily safeguarded. "I'm not sure my kids realize what they're missing," he admits.

One grandmother regularly took Chabon to the "International Safeway" (1110 F St. NW) where, he says, they would "look at canned kangaroo tail soup and elephant steaks."

Then Grandmother would schlep blocks if necessary to take him "to use the fabulous ladies' lounge" at the old Garfinckel's department store. "It was the only restroom in the city that met her obsessive-compulsive standards of hygiene," he says without exaggeration.

The District held other boy wonders. At the Uptown Theater, Chabon -- who would grow up to be a screenwriter ("Spider-Man 2") and to see his novels "Wonder Boys" and "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh" turned into feature films -- basked in the 1979 wonder that was "Apocalypse Now." His recollections: "Glossy program. No credits. Flaming jungle. 70 mm. Unbelievable Walter Murch sound."

He calls it his "single all-time greatest movie experience ever."


Another personal hot spot was the original Ledo Pizza, near the University of Maryland campus in College Park. Says Chabon of the famed restaurant, which of course grew into the successful chain: It was the "most significant religious site in [our] family pizza cult."


Sometimes, when Chabon writes passionately about the slices of a life, it can seem leavened with longing. He appears to have a case of the subterranean homesick blues when he recalls June 1972, and what a rolling, roiling Hurricane Agnes hath wrought in his grandparents' Silver Spring home: He and younger brother Steve went to bed in the basement, only to awake to the "magic" of a suddenly flooded floor. Chabon writes that it was Max's bedroom in "Where the Wild Things Are" come to real, rippling life.

And Chabon's Nostalgic Washington would not be complete without a proper soundtrack. He tunes in to memories of his mother's favorite D.C. station, WMOD ("Washington's Goldmine"), whose classic rock lineup included her favorite song, Dion & the Belmonts' "Runaround Sue." WMOD would be succeeded by WBIG as an oldies outpost, says Chabon, who writes: "No medium is so sensuously evocative of the past as radio."
At sensuously evoking a region's past, though, Chabon the tour guide -- the returning native son tripping through Nostalgic Washington -- sublimely resuscitates an era's magical mysteries. And does so with the highest of fidelity.

And if Chabon be our own sweet failure, then Washington: All hail the conquering zero.

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By Michael Cavna  | December 11, 2009; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  General, Interviews With Cartoonists  | Tags:  Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Apocalypse Now, Arts, Francis Ford Coppola, Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband Father and Son, Maryland, Michael Chabon, Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Wonder Boys  
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