Michael Chabon’s poignant new novel is narrated by a young writer who’s watching his grandfather die of cancer.
The elderly man has never been much of a talker, but now, his inhibitions diminished by strong painkillers and the realization that end is near, he’s decided to unburden himself. And oh boy, does he have some stories to share.
“Moonglow” is gorgeously written and shaded with sadness, a story of recklessness, bravery and loss that spans the 20th century. According to his publisher, Chabon’s book is “a work of fictional nonfiction, an autobiography wrapped in a novel disguised as a memoir.”
This is an overly cute way of saying that the author has taken some liberties in the telling of his grandfather’s colorful biography. Novelists do this kind of thing every day. But as he demonstrates in these pages, few do it as well as Chabon, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his novel “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.”
Though “Moonglow” exceeds 400 pages, Chabon never gets around to telling us the old-timer’s name.
The narrator simply refers to him as “my grandfather,” or, on a few occasions, “Rico,” a short-lived nickname he picked up in the military. Whatever you want to call him, the aged fellow at the heart of the book has led a tumultuous life.
The action starts in New York, with a frightening assault perpetrated by the grandfather, then a young man. As recalled in one of the book’s vivid flashbacks, it’s the 1950s and he’s a salesman who’s been unjustly fired.
Rather than quietly clearing out his desk, he batters his boss, nearly choking the man to death with a telephone cord. His crime lands him in prison.
This, we learn, is not the first time he’s been on the wrong side of the law. Another chapter recounts his time in the Army Corps of Engineers in the 1940s, during which he staged a daring, if foolish, fake bomb plot meant to show that Washington, D.C., was vulnerable to attack. Instead of a stint in a military jail, his exploits earn him a spot with the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner to the CIA.
The narrative jumps around in time but is most eventful in the ’40s and ’50s, as he roams the German countryside during World War II and marries a war refugee. Both will spend the rest of their days dealing with the fallout from the brutality of Hitler’s troops.
Throughout, there are two constants for the grandfather: He’s clever, and he’s fascinated by rocketry and space travel. This latter quality informs the book’s title. It also inspires some of Chabon’s most vivid writing.
In one such scene, his grandfather looks to the sky in 1957 and sees a piece of the Russian satellite Sputnik fall back to Earth. “It was a prisoner of gravity like everything in the universe,” Chabon writes.
“Its orbit would degrade. It would spiral inward until it hit the air and then burn up and break apart and leave nothing but vapor and a memory.”
Harrowing in its depiction of war and deeply attuned to the double-edged legacies bequeathed by our elders, this is often a decidedly mournful book. There are funny moments, but Chabon mostly embraces the grief, plumbing it for answers to long-guarded family mysteries.
“Moonglow” may not be cheery, but it’s often very powerful.
Kevin Canfield is a writer in New York City.
“Moonglow,” by Michael Chabon (448 pages; Harper; $28.99)