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A Sensitivity To Failure

At age 39, author Michael Chabon appears well placed in the great, grown-up world. He is married, has three children and lives on a leafy side street in a scenic, high-priced city.

But once he steps inside the cottage behind his house, time rewinds. Old baseball photos and sketches of cartoon heroes cover the walls and a turntable sits near his computer. The cottage serves as his office, but it could be mistaken for a reconstructed clubhouse.

"I definitely have a few toys up here," he says with a laugh during a recent interview. "To me, it's like Superman's fortress of solitude or the bat cave, a place where trophies of my various campaigns are kept."

Winner of the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," Chabon receives seven-figure advances for his books and got comparable money for a "Kavalier & Clay" screenplay, to be produced by Scott Rudin of "Addams Family" fame.

He is currently working on a novel, set in Alaska, but home life directed him to an additional project. Reading "Charlotte's Web" and other classics to his kids made him want to write a children's book himself.

"Summerland" is a 490-page tale of environmental peril and old-fashioned Americana, with such favored Chabon themes as baseball, superheroes, fathers and, curiously, failure. Miramax Books is giving the fantasy novel a first printing of 200,000, and has already signed up Chabon for two sequels.

"I have big hopes for 'Summerland,"' says Joe Monti, the children's book buyer for Barnes & Noble, Inc. "You can tell that he understands children's literature. He's not just doing it on a whim, or following a trend. He's quite serious about it."

The hero of "Summerland," 12-year-old Ethan Feld, is billed by Chabon as "The Worst Ballplayer in the History of Clam Island." Banished to baseball's version of Siberia - deep right field - Ethan is so hopeless a hitter that he never lifts the bat from his shoulder. The boy "was mortally afraid of striking out swinging," Chabon writes. "Was there any worse kind of failure than that? Striking out."

Chabon's sensitivity to failure - well documented in the novel "Wonder Boys" - should by now be well exorcised. But like a self-made millionaire ever afraid of losing his fortune, Chabon identifies with what can go wrong, citing parenthood as an ongoing reminder.

"Being a good father is probably my major ambition in life," he says, "and yet I think there's not a day that goes by that I don't feel I failed in some way or another. I didn't pay attention when I should have paid attention. I missed a cue my kid was giving me and there was a problem to deal with. It's just an endless failure."

A native of Washington, D.C., Chabon has lived out a common contemporary story, marked by his parents' divorce and the breakdown of faith in the basic myths of American life.

"Davy Crockett and Paul Bunyan and the golden spike and all those iconic images were still very much around in the media in the world I grew up in," Chabon says. "But I knew by the time I was 13, and we were into the whole bicentennial celebration, that it was all somehow a bust."

Lost innocence is more a state of mind than a state of body for Chabon, a youthful presence with his slender build, wavy hair and thin, precocious voice, as though puberty were a conflict only recently resolved.

Chabon liked baseball and movies as a child and his father, with whom he spent summers in Pittsburgh, made him memorize all the presidents of the United States, in order. Interested early on in worlds beyond this one, the author also liked the fantasy novels of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.

At age 10, Chabon created his first story, in which Sherlock Holmes joins forces with Captain Nemo. Around the same time, he also wrote a fantasy about America's tricentennial, when the last remaining unused melody must serve as a theme song.

A graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, Chabon was his in mid-20s when he emerged as one of the country's most promising writers, admired for an expansive but playful vocabulary and a feeling for both wonder and despair. Several publishers bid for his first book, "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh," a melancholy novel about romantic and filial love that reviewers compared to the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald and J.D. Salinger.

"He has wonderful powers of observation," says Doug Stumpf, who edited the novel at William Morrow & Company, which published the book in 1988.

"I remember he came up with me to the country once and we stopped at this couple's house. They had just bought this house and had just moved in and Michael noticed that the wife was stripping the kitchen floor with a toothbrush. He had never met them, but he caught the irony of the situation - they've just bought a house, nothing has been unpacked and she's cleaning the floor with a toothbrush."

Chabon's novel had professional and personal consequences. His narration of an affair between two men raised questions about his own sexuality, including one from his future second wife, author Ayelet Waldman, whom he met soon after publication.

"A gay love story dedicated to his (first) wife is kind of a problem when you're going on a blind date," says Waldman, whose own books include the mysteries "Nursery Crimes" and "A Playdate With Death."

Acclaimed first novels mean both the chance, and the pressure, to produce something even better. Some authors spend years writing books compared unfavorably to the first (Norman Mailer, who debuted with "The Naked and the Dead"), or never finish another (Ralph Ellison, author of "Invisible Man").

Chabon can make you believe that he conjures up stories with a magic wand, but he had such a hard time with his next novel that he ended up writing "Wonder Boys." Published in 1992, the novel reads like the life Chabon feared for himself: an aging prodigy, Grady Tripp, with nothing to show but an ever-growing manuscript.

Somewhere in Chabon's mind, Tripp is probably still typing away, but the author's own career moved along nicely. He completed "Kavalier & Clay," a 600-page celebration of comic book and real-life heroes set mostly in the 1930s and '40s, and then turned to writing "Summerland."

In both books, Chabon explores, and re-invents, American folklore. Just as the narrator of "Mysteries of Pittsburgh" tells of "swallowing an entire system of bad taste ... and then finding it beautiful and fun," Chabon looks to a past he still misses, even if he doesn't believe in it.

"In 'Summerland,' characters keep saying, 'It used be like this, but it's not anymore.' Everything is reduced. There's a sense of regret over that," he says.

"All the things that I had loved and weren't true I acquired a certain cynicism about. Now I appreciate them for their qualities as a story, as myth. I don't need them to be true to be interesting."

By Hillel Italie

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