One of my all time favorites | The front cover of "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh"
The growing pains of adolescence illustrated in Michael Chabon’s debut novel.
I spent a lot of time thinking about the right book for my second “Book & Cover” column. There are books that find a cozy spot on our bookshelves and become permanent residents, even family. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon is one of those books in my life. It was Chabon’s debut novel, written almost 30 years ago when he was only 21. I loved the book, and have followed everything he’s published since. While I don’t have any firsthand knowledge of being a young adult in the 80’s, the book made a big impact on me. I think it was a matter of timing. I myself was about 21, still living with my parents, desperate for life to begin. The book felt like everything that my life wasn’t, everything that I wanted it to be. It was vividly exciting and alive.
Cover: Amateur Book Design
Around the time I was reading The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, I was also in the process of applying for design school. Part of my application was an assignment, which I was delighted to discover was vaguely titled “Literature”. I started playing around with book covers and designing what I now know were an amateur, unappealing designs (and realized how much I needed to learn). It just so happens that one of my unfortunate experiments was a cover for this very book. It was so awkward that I'm not capable of sharing it here, don't judge me :).
Book: Lovers & Gangsters
The Mysteries of Pittsburgh follows the story of young Art, the unlikely son of a gangster. It’s the summer after his graduation, and he’s keen on living a care-free existence as far from his father as possible. He spends the summer exploring his sexuality, first with the strangely beautiful Phlox and then with her alluring friend Arthur. Unfortunately for Art, he’s a character in a Chabon book, and soon enough he finds himself straight back in his father’s overreaching grasp. A lot of Chabon’s books flirt with bisexuality in a very offhanded manner. This book even more so due to the fact that it’s written in first person. He plays with the sensation that you’re almost reading his own personal diary.
Chabon’s latest book, Moonglow, was published last year and is a casual sequel to The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. Moonglow continues to play with the pseudo-autobiographical point-of-view and even takes it a step further by naming the protagonist Michael - Chabon’s own first name. Part of the magic of both books is that you’re never quite sure where Chabon draws the line between fiction and his own reality.
Cover: Retro Vibes
As for the real cover of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, I love the unpretentious lettering and eighties color palette. My copy of the book is especially retro, being a long forgotten loan from an anonymous German library. I was desperate to find out who designed the cover, but despite my best sleuthing efforts on Google, the mysterious designer remains illusive. On the other hand, I did discover that the American edition of the book* from the same year, which sports an equally retro beauty by Paul Bacon. Have a look below at the American edition, as well as some of Bacon’s other iconic covers: