As he speaks in a rapid style that's as dazzling as his prose, the 49-year-old author is the perfect picture of this union of genres. He's wearing professorial tortoiseshell glasses, a well-cut black suit that speaks to his success and a Western-style shirt that adds a sly sense of hipness and humor. He's eating a country fried steak during a break from book tour in Nashville in Rotier's, the restaurant that inspired Jimmy Buffett to write "Cheeseburger in Paradise."
It was the kind of pop cultural mosaic -- finery leavened with whimsy -- he thrives on. The kind his father, Robert, taught him early on to appreciate.
"He just knew everything about everything about quote-unquote high art, but he also loved Japanese monster movies and 'Star Trek' and comic books and the Marx Brothers, Ray Milland in 'The Man With The X-Ray Eyes,' and growing up he never seemed to me to try to draw a distinction between those things. If he took an interest in it, it was worthy of interest."
He was soon disabused of the notion that anything he was passionate about is "worthy of art" at the University of California-Irvine, and he admits he wasn't hard to convince.
"Yes, I want to be loved," he said with a laugh. "Also, I could see their point in a sense."
But in retrospect, he sometimes wishes he'd gone the other way -- instead of starting in the mainstream, crossing over to it.
Not to say he didn't enjoy those first two novels. "Pittsburgh" was an homage to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Phillip Roth and Marcel Proust and a part of literature that he also loved. But emboldened by his success, he returned to his earlier ideas and began working on "Kavalier & Clay," one of a handful that helped open the door for so-called genre fiction to be taken seriously as literature.
Author Chris Offutt thinks we owe Chabon something for that. Offutt, a self-described "comics super freak" who calls Chabon the best writer of his generation, remembers being astounded at the open discussion of comics when he attended a "Kavalier & Clay" reading.
"There we were in a bookstore, surrounded by literary fans, talking comics," he said. "Chabon's work proves that the line between genre writing and literary writing is mostly a marketing ploy. Like Graham Greene, he proves that a writer can entertain readers with high-quality prose."
Chabon believes it's a little easier today for young authors and his contemporaries to experiment and get published by serious literary houses. He points to several examples of fence jumping, like Colson Whitehead's zombie novel "Zone One" and Rick Moody's "The Four Fingers of Death." Junot Diaz is working on a post-apocalyptic novel, and Cormac McCarthy won the Pulitzer for his own, "The Road."
The shift, though still small, feels permanent.
"The gatekeepers of culture are people who are younger and more comfortable with mashups and crossovers," he said, "and the idea of a literary writer writing a zombie novel doesn't faze them as much as it probably would have fazed them earlier."