Do all boys who grew up in the sixties and seventies—writers, anyway—nurture an obsessive devotion to the trivia of their youth? Kickball, for instance: “What passed for physical education in 1974: a giant rubbery ball, faded red and pebbled like a bath mat, more bowled than pitched in the direction of home plate.” That’s how Jonathan Lethem puts it in his new story collection, Men and Cartoons, which also features such time-stamped references as “Mad magazine, Woody Allen, Talking Heads, Frank Zappa and Devo.”
Lethem has spent a lot of time staking out this territory, most recently in his New York past-and-future novels Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude. In Men and Cartoons—a story collection that mainly seems to be holding his place in this fall’s Doubleday catalogue—he makes frequent visits to the place that one of his characters calls “Planet Big Zero,” the prime destination for overgrown adolescents who still daydream about playing third-tier superheroes like the Vision, “the brooding, superpowered android from Marvel Comics’ Avengers.”
In “The Dystopianist, Thinking of His Rival, Is Interrupted by a Knock on the Door,” a writer of doomsday scenarios receives a visit from one of his creations, a sheep with suicidal inclinations. Even in this absurdist, Philip K. Dick–inflected story, though, what really counts is the rivalry between the Dystopianist and an old schoolmate, also a science-fiction writer, “the man he privately called the Dire One” because his utopian scenarios are so idealized that “the reader felt a mortal pang at slipping back into his own daily life, which had been proved morbid, crushed, unfair.” In most of these stories, the men are cartoons—of a by-now familiar existential disappointment.
After so much arrested development, it’s a profound pleasure to pick up Michael Chabon’s The Final Solution—another slim outing, but only in its page count. The Final Solution is a nod to Sherlock Holmes—the late Victorian era’s equivalent of a superhero—and it revisits some familiar themes, notably from Chabon’s last epic novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. But unlike Lethem, Chabon isn’t hung up on painful memories of youthful failures.
In The Final Solution, the Holmes character, identified only as “the old man,” has retired to keep bees in the south of England while keeping studiously to himself. One day, he encounters a young boy walking along the railway tracks with an African gray parrot on his shoulder.
The boy turns out to be Linus Steinman, a mute German Jewish refugee who, along with his feathered friend, has landed at the house of a frustrated vicar and his equally disappointed wife. The bird, Bruno, rattles out mysterious strings of numbers in German. Secret naval codes? Swiss bank accounts belonging to victims of Hitler’s Final Solution? When the parrot disappears and one of the vicar’s other lodgers is found with his skull smashed in, the local police call in the retired sleuth to consult. Chabon avoids direct references to Holmes, Watson, and the rest of the Baker Street inventory, but he works in the right and proper details: the beaky nose, the Inverness cape, the magnifying glass, the investigative technique.
Don’t mistake this for a simple homage, or a kitschy study in Holmesiana, though. The game’s afoot, but it’s bigger game than murder. Holmes is up against greater villains than he’s ever known: the loss of what one holds most dear, whether it’s a bird or a world in which solutions—i.e., rational explanations of events—do exist. The old man agrees to join the hunt, not because of the murder, but because he wants to return the bird to the bereaved boy. So this is less a mystery story, though it offers the satisfactions of one, than it is a story about the end of a world that can be understood through rational inquiry. As his powers begin to fade, the old man—in many ways the old order’s last embodiment—gets one final chance to exercise his faculties: to play hero, even if only for one small boy. In the moral universe of comic books, this good deed would probably be too small to count. Examine it closely, though, as Chabon does, and it becomes a way of fighting off that moment when “meaning drain[s] from the world like light fleeing the operation of an eclipse.” And that is worth more than a thousand excursions to the adolescent confines of Planet Big Zero.