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Swan Dive 

Michael Chabon may be a literary swan, affixed with the tag of Pulitzer Prize-winning author, but he's never forgotten the ugly duckling years of adolescence.

At 41, he acknowledges hanging on to those uncomfortable years as constant motivation. Rather than lapse into self-analysis, though, Chabon displays the odd but endearing alchemy inherent in his work and persona when he discusses, of all things, baseball.

During his childhood, when the Chabons lived in a Washington suburb, young Michael became a Senators fan. In 1971, when he was 8, Chabon recalls watching the Senators on TV with his dad.

"Then they were packed up in the dead of the night and shipped off to Texas and became the Rangers (in 1972)," he says. "That's one of those things, how can that be, how can they let that happen? It's like trying to explain to my children, how can an election possibly be stolen? And, of course, Texas, once again, was involved there."

Such sentiments conjure all of Chabon's sensibilities: a heart easily broken, child-like wonder, hardened adult reality and a blend of humor and resignation. Years later, the author has switched baseball affiliations a couple of times, first to the Pittsburgh Pirates and, later, the San Francisco Giants, nearer his Berkeley, Calif., home. Chabon's literary career is far less checkered than his baseball romances: At 23, his thesis manuscript was sent by a professor to an agent and garnered the highest advance for a debut literary novel.

Today, he is, simply, the coolest writer in America. Recently a new novella, The Final Solution (Fourth Estate), was published, evincing, in part, a long-acknowledged love of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's works. It conjures a frail, octogenarian bearing a striking resemblance to Sherlock Holmes summoned from his dotage for one last case.

This unnamed, Holmesian detective does, indeed, favor a pipe, which belches an unpleasant smoke. Chabon describes it with marvelous precision: "It hung in the room as thick as sheepshearing and made arabesques in the harsh slanting light from the window."

Beyond the mystery dabbling, Chabon has edited a second collection of spine-tingling short stories also published recently: McSweeney's Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories (Vintage). Contributors include Joyce Carol Oates, Stephen King, Roddy Doyle and Jonathan Lethem. Next fall, he'll deliver a new novel, The Yiddish Policemen's Union, which involves, among other things, a modern-day Jewish homeland set in Alaska instead of the Middle East. As the two new titles suggest, Chabon's ambitions have taken an astonishing turn of their own in recent years. His sparkling debut, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (Perennial), became a bestseller, followed by another hit, Wonder Boys (Picador), a winking nod to fellow writers blessed and burdened by unanticipated early literary success.

Chabon (he favors a pronunciation primer of, "Shea as in Stadium, Bon as in Jovi") took all the promise and talent of those works and melded it with a childhood passion -- comic books -- in his third novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (Picador). The book earned Chabon the Pulitzer Prize in 2001.

Kavalier & Clay displayed much more of Chabon's fantasy, science fiction and, yes, comic book influences alongside healthy heapings of American heavyweights spanning Poe and Melville, Faulkner and Fitzgerald. As he gleefully points out, his desire is nothing less than annihilation of Barnes & Noble-bred barricades -- a we-are-the-word gumbo where, say, Neal Stephenson and Robert Louis Stevenson are separated by a couple of letters rather than entire sections.

The new novella is a fine display of such vision, pairing a delightful procedural with a haunting meditation on mortality. Chabon sacrifices neither pure entertainment nor literary achievement in the process.

Married with four children, he exhibits a tenacious dedication to work. In his spare time, Chabon knocks out the occasional screenplay, including a credit on last summer's Spider-Man 2.

As Spider-Man can attest, with great power comes great responsibility. In a literary sense, Chabon seems intent on fulfilling the lofty expectations set forth for him. Most days, he writes for several hours at a stretch. Chabon calls creative inspiration a myth and frets that critics will discover that his talent falls short of the many lavish reviews he's received.

"There's always a voice in my head saying, ŒOh, what do they know? They don't know the real you, the total reject.' You're alone in your office with your computer and the praise doesn't help you."

In the same vein, Chabon acknowledges his gratitude and good fortune, but sees more pragmatism than glamour in his movie dabbling.

"I keep doing this Hollywood screenwriting work because it pays really well and because it's fun," he says. "And I get great health-care coverage through the Writers Guild."

So what does America's hottest writer think of all this cachet and impressive earning power in a field known for producing lifelong paupers? "Instead of having money," he says. "I have children. And I feed them and take care of them." Chabon, in other words, may be a literary Superman, but he lives like Clark Kent

click to enlarge Michael Chabon's new novella, The Final Solution, shows a long-acknowledged love of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's works.
  • Michael Chabon's new novella, The Final Solution, shows a long-acknowledged love of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's works.
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