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'Moonglow' is a long, elegant mess about love, sex, truth and rockets

By Michael Chabon
448 pages

The premise of “Moonglow” is that Michael Chabon – winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, darling of American letters – has gone to his grandfather in his declining days, plying him with soup and narcotic painkillers (warranted as palliative; he is dying of cancer), warming him and opening him enough to mine stories from him. If this sounds calculating, it is … but in a transparent and loving way that is justified by a long history of mutual care.

There is no one in his family Chabon has ever respected more than this grandfather, and the conquering of his grandfather’s lifelong habit of manly silence is clearly an achievement to which Chabon assigns value. As always with Chabon’s work, there is something very Jewish here: in this case the notion that love always feels a little like combat. Chabon wins the battle; he has earned his position as the family story-keeper, and elevates his grandfather’s raw material into what we read here.

Chabon is literally upfront about what we’re getting with “Moonglow”. Here is how his introduction begins: “In preparing this memoir I have stuck to facts except when facts refused to conform with memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as I prefer to understand it.”

Refreshingly honest, funny, and succinct: Chabon in a nutshell. As Chabon told us in the final pages of his 1995 novel “Wonder Boys”, he knows that his readers will always flip through the pages seeking out the parts that “feel true”. Here, he tells us: “Sometimes even lovers of fiction can be satisfied only by the truth.”

“Moonglow” is a long, elegant mess that feels like truth. It is both elegiac and immediate, balanced between rambling, wrenching emotion and clean descriptive precision, a tale of his own life as told through a wide-ranging revisionist history. The framework is his grandfather’s assessment of HIS life, driven by his twin obsessions: love and rockets.

The love is embodied in Chabon’s mentally ill grandmother, and the rockets in his career as an aerospace model builder, begun by a wartime encounter with a lost V2.

The story bounces around in time, detailing Chabon’s grandfather’s iconoclastic and at times heroic efforts in World War II, then jumping back to that same grandfather’s deathbed. He tells gorgeous, haunting tales from his own mother’s wounded childhood, and then comes back to his grandfather, now hunting a snake in a Florida retirement community, immediately prior to his final decline.

Chabon is bearing a crucial American standard here: the last few decades of Jewish storytelling have been shaped by “the war” – meaning the one in which the 6 million were killed, and from which the modern Jewish American tension between respectability and hustle was born. Chabon’s male forbears, defined by this war, are a troubled lot: his uncle a rascal, a billiards player, and a sexual predator … his father, a doctor who abandoned his family. But there is his grandfather, clearly Chabon’s lantern in the thicket of manhood – burdened but noble, driven by integrity but haunted by rage.

Chabon’s warm, dry humor seeps into everything and buoys it, infusing each story with his affection and appreciation. He is generous with everyone, including the abusers and nuts and low-lifes, the Nazis, cads and fallen women whose genes spewed forth to make him.

Chabon loves his details, both material and emotional: we learn much of the movements of troops in Austria, life in the aerospace industry from the 1950s through the ’80s, and the horrors of psychiatric care in a time when untold numbers of traumatized Americans likely could have used some, but only the worst cases were delivered into it. He also spends a lot of time with his grandfather’s lifelong relationship to Werner Von Braun. In this story, factual or not, his grandfather tipped a domino that led to Von Brain’s capture and the American ascent in the field of aeronautics, eventually taking America to the moon.

And about the moon. The moonglow is the thread we are meant to follow through this pinball game of family tales – it is light in the darkness, shining consistently across space and time on Europe, New York, Oakland, Maryland … from prison to row house to battlefield. It illuminates sex and death and the ways we fail children with our selfishness.

Chabon also dwells, as he often does, on heartbroken romanticizing of a beautiful crazy woman – in this case, his mother’s mother. This theme is so persistent for him as to risk becoming cliché, but he manages to keep it fresh by keeping it personal. (The confessional writing of his own wife, the author Ayelet Waldman, indicates that Chabon himself followed this narrative into marriage.)
His grandmother’s mental state is finally attributed to trauma, loss, and hormones. Chabon cannot be blamed for needing to answer the “why is the mother unsafe” question, accurately or not. His own mother’s life was defined by it, and therefore his.

His grandfather is offered as the broken hero, desiring only to redeem himself by loving and protecting the vulnerable women that were offered to him – his wife and her daughter. At one point he mournfully explains that he had tried to understand his wife’s brain as an engineer, through “failure analysis”. Here the grandfather also represents the chance to escape your own blood: because his grandfather adopted his mother, he was not genetically related to Chabon, yet Chabon and his mother clearly cared for him both emotionally and physically with a fervency that indicates a faith that he rescued and redeemed them. His efforts allowed the storyteller to be born to tell his tale.

His grandfather’s career modeling spacecraft is the central metaphor for Chabon’s own narrative style: everything small but precise, wildly fantastical but plausible down to the last detail.His tales are models, strung together like jewels, defining a family. Their cumulative shine resembles moonglow: cool, bright, sad and lovely.

Emily Simon is a Buffalo-raised writer who lives in California.

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