Michael Chabon's new novel, Moonglow, is a marvel of melancholy enchantment, the story of one man's life seen, as its title suggests, through last lingering light before darkness. But it's as rich and strange as any dream.
The novel, Chabon has said, is autobiographical to a degree. Like the "Mike" who narrates this book, he sat by the bedside of his dying grandfather in 1989. The old man had been reserved all his life, especially about his own past. His wife says of him in the book, "Some husbands take lovers. Mine he take the Fifth."
But conscious of approaching his end, his body savaged by bone cancer and his inhibitions melted by powerful painkillers, the old man began to talk.
As Moonglow tells it, he unwound quite a tale. Is it true, is it the real story of Chabon's grandfather? Who cares? All fiction is autobiographical to some degree, and none of it is entirely. Counting those beans just gets in the way of the story.
And Moonglow is all about storytelling. The story of the grandfather — he has no other name, nor does the grandmother, the novel's other star — begins with a hair-raising and darkly funny chapter about the time he tried to kill his boss back in 1957. It lays a trail of breadcrumbs that will lead us through his life.
In a news report he's "described by an unnamed coworker as 'the quiet type,' " and the narrator notes that "my grandfather and his emotions were never really on speaking terms." But his attack on the president of the company that just fired him (to give his job to a historical figure, one of many in the book) is triggered by his intense and protective love for his wife and daughter. His method gives us a tantalizing clue to his past: "During World War II, he had been trained in the use of a garrote. He knew that, done properly, strangulation was short work." And, when he's interrupted by an intrepid secretary who stabs him with a letter opener, as soon as his rage recedes he says, "Forgive me."
From that incident, Chabon propels the reader to 1989, setting up the frame of the old man living out his last days at the home of his daughter, Mike's mother, and telling his life story. The narrator tells us the "recollections emerged in no discernible order," but don't believe him. True, this novel is far from linear, looping and doubling back upon itself, but as complex as it is, Chabon is always in control.
We get a glimpse of the grandfather's childhood, growing up in a German Jewish family in a neighborhood of immigrants in South Philadelphia, where even as a boy he "studied the nuances of people's ways of speaking and carrying themselves" as a means of survival.
He finds escape in reading pulp-magazine stories, enchanted in particular by one "about a daring earthman who flew in an atomic rocket to the Moon's dark side, where he found ample air and water, fought bloodthirsty selenites, and fell in love with a pale and willing lunar princess. The Moon was a tough neighborhood, and the princess required frequent salvation by the earthman."
Rockets will recur in his World War II experiences, during which he will pursue both the iconic V-2 rocket and its creator, Wernher von Braun, whom he sees first as a hero of aeronautics, then — after he witnesses the horrors of Nordhausen, where slave laborers built the rockets for the Nazis — as an utter monster. After the war, rockets and spacecraft will become, in one way or another, his life's work. And decades later, he'll encounter von Braun in Florida, toothless but a monster still.
The grandfather will also find that pale princess. His first meeting with the grandmother is a hilarious set piece about the ladies of the local synagogue setting the bait to marry off a pretty, widowed war refugee from France with a young daughter to a suitable bachelor. It's hot and hopeless love at first sight for the grandfather, even though he knows it won't be easy: "She was always threatening rain; he had been born with an umbrella in his hand."
There's a dark core to that enduring romance; she is as unknowable as he is, the clues to her episodes of madness found in such things as this, part of a list her grandson makes about her: "The tattoo on her left forearm. Five digits encoding nothing but the unspoken prohibition on my asking her about them. The jaunty 7 with its continental slash."
Much of Moonglow mines the same historical eras that Chabon employed to such great effect in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, the novel that won him the Pulitzer Prize in 2001. Some of this book's chapters are set in the late 1980s, when the widowed grandfather is living in a Florida retirement community and engaged on yet another quest, this time trying to slay a giant boa constrictor that devoured a lady friend's cat.
Amid all its adventure and humor and family drama, though, Moonglow is essentially a love story, one that echoes through the generations. "Keeping secrets was the family business," the narrator tells us. "But it was a business, it seemed to me, that none of us had ever profited from." In this novel, told in a voice droll and tender and sometimes dark, in language as lovely as its title, Chabon makes those secrets into riches for readers.
Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.