I have always found spoken storytelling to be magical. I love listening to a story told around a campfire, or shared over dinner with friends, or even one that a stranger relates on the subway or on a plane that turns out to be so funny and nuanced and true that you find yourself holding onto it, remembering it, long after the stranger has disappeared.
I’m a captive audience for all of it.
There is something incredibly special when I come across a novel that feels as though it’s being shared in a similarly intimate, personal way. With that kind of confident yet impromptu authorial voice. Like the author isn’t writing down the words for you to read but has actually saddled up next to you on a barstool, eager to share his tale.
Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys is one of those novels. And Grady Tripp, its complicated and wonderful narrator, is one of my favorite storytellers.
Grady’s many things: a professor, a philanderer, a struggling author who has been working on his latest book for years. He is both frenzied and slow to move, generous and selfish, loving and unavailable. He’s a mess of contradictions, stemming from an interior battle between the man he almost wants to be and the man he’s completely unwilling to leave behind.
In Wonder Boys, you join Grady for a life-altering weekend in which all of these identities come to a head. The real joy of the novel, though, isn’t even the territory it covers, enjoyable as it is. And it is undeniably enjoyable—a meditation on love and loss and growing up and forgiveness and rediscovering yourself, all wrapped into one.
No, what sets Wonder Boys apart is the nature of the storytelling itself. From its welcoming first lines—“The first real writer I ever knew was a man who did all of his work under the name of August Van Zorn. He lived at the McClelland Hotel, which my grandmother owned, in the uppermost room of its turret, and taught English literature at Coxley, a small college on the other side of the minor Pennsylvania river that split our town in two.”—it feels like Grady is telling you, and just you, his story. That it’s your barstool he’s saddled up to. And Grady keeps you right there on the edge as his story moves from the messy to the deeply funny to the upliftingly hopeful until you’re cheering out loud as he reaches long overdue resolutions about who he wants to be and how he’s going to get there.
Wonder Boys takes us to the place where the best storytelling takes us—a place where we feel changed and satisfied. A place where we think, How do I remember every word? How do I hold on to all the stops and starts, the rhythms and the laughter, so I can properly share its magic with someone else?
How do I take this story with me?
Lucky for us, in this case, we can start again on page one.
Laura Dave is the author of the novel Eight Hundred Grapes.