Michael Chabon’s new novel, “Moonglow,” initially presents itself as a fairly straightforward memoir. And yet complications abound from the get-go, as one might expect from a writer who has done more than most to complicate what genre works can do and be and how they might be critically received. (An author’s note also suggests that mischief is afoot: “In preparing this memoir, I have stuck to facts except when facts refused to conform with memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as a I prefer to understand it,” it reads in part.)
“Moonglow” collects the purported deathbed recollections of “my grandfather,” who, like his wife, or “my grandmother,” and daughter (“my mother”), goes unnamed for the duration of the 400+ page book. These confessions are delivered under the influence of heavy-duty, tongue-loosening hydromorphone prescribed against the pain of end-stage bone-cancer, to the care of “Mike Chabon,” a writer fresh off the publication of his first book, who adds to them the gloss of his own experience, his mother’s commentary and his own subsequent investigation (which produces, in one case, a gasp-inducing revelation; or, anyway, I gasped, and I’m not generally a reader given to gasping).
“My grandfather”’s story covers the better part of the twentieth century, which, of course means the worse — and the worst — parts. To briefly put in chronological order what “Moonglow” — a title that alludes to the grandfather’s interest in space travel and moon colonies, the grandmother’s precarious mental health, and the Benny Goodman song by that name — deliberately jumbles: the grandfather comes of age in Depression-era South Philadelphia (“at the corner of Tenth and Shunk”); enlists in the Army Corps of Engineers (having grown bored of unemployment, and “known as a shark in every pool hall within a hundred miles of the corner of Fourth and Ritner”); reluctantly becomes first lieutenant; is sent to work in the Office of Strategic Services, where he is charged with going in “behind the eventual invasion force and pick[ing] Germany’s pocket” by recruiting German scientists, engineers, and technology; encounters the V-2 rockets and learns of the human costs of the work that made it possible; nurses a lifelong grudge against Wernher von Braun, the Nazi rocket scientist who later became a key figure in the US space exploration program; marries a beautiful French refugee with a four-year-old daughter and a complicated, painful past; goes to work for Feathercombs, Inc., a manufacturer of “a kind of fancy barrette made by from loops of piano wire”; attacks the president of Feathercombs after being fired so that Alger Hiss, just out of prison, can have a job; serves prison time at Wallkill, where he encounters Sam Chabon (“my uncle Sammy”) with whom he eventually runs a successful model rocket company; and makes scale models for NASA.
This is, I must admit, only a glancing, skimming account. It leaves out, for example, the grandfather’s snake-hunting activities, his sexual prowess (both in his prime and late in life, though perhaps the less said about either, the better: It doesn’t take a prude to be put off by descriptions of “my grandmother”’s apricot-like behind), and his encounters with circus folk and Nazis, jail-bound dentists and retirement home guards. And though the details sound, in aggregate, highly improbable, it is Chabon’s great accomplishment that, as they unspool in “Moonglow,” they are affecting, ring true, pierce deeply. He gets carried away at times, becomes engrossed in descriptions that may have been more fun to write than they are to read. But the experience of reading the novel is fundamentally a lovely one, which is not meant to be feint praise but an acknowledgement that the book manages to affirm human decency in the face of some very terrible events. It bathes the terrible, bloody, messy past in the moon glow of familial love and the healing capacities of being known and understood. (“That was all he wanted,” Mike remarks of his grandfather, “to be known,” a sentiment that might read trite as part of a review, but that is, in the context of the grandfather’s history, genuinely revealing.)
“Moonglow” is not of course a memoir, and the publicist’s description of the book as a “a lie that tells the truth, a work of fictional nonfiction, an autobiography wrapped in a novel disguised as a memoir” suggests an unfortunately postmodern grab bag of tricks, something self-consciously hip, which “Moonglow” is not. What it is is a picaresque, an episodic tale of adventure, the chronicle of a tough, roguish, ultimately profoundly decent man, a Don Quixote who aims for the moon and spins quite a yarn. And maybe it is sometimes ridiculous, but it is also undeniably funny and tender and sad and generous.
My husband likes to say that people tend to think their grandfathers were strong and brave and their grandmothers were exceptionally beautiful. It doesn’t so much matter if this is true. In “Moonglow,” the belief is earnest and noble. It makes us better.
Yevgeniya Traps writes about books and art for the Forward.