Pulitzer prize winner Michael Chabon’s new book “Moonglow” is one of those novels that pretends to be a memoir. I generally dislike memoirs – those supposed heart-rending confessions with little plot and no sense of drama give me heartburn that no amount of Tums can cure. But “Moonglow,” a stellar novel that will appeal to anyone who’s ever investigated their ancestry, transcends my aversion.
A fictional Mike Chabon narrates this story about his grandfather and grandmother and their extraordinary lives. Fictional Mike writes, “I began to research and write this memoir, abandoning – repudiating – a novelistic approach to the material. Sometimes even lovers of fiction can be satisfied only by the truth.” But the purported repudiation is just the real Chabon having a little metafictional fun.
Everyone has remarkable family stories with eccentric, even weird relatives in their family lore – maybe an axe-murdering aunt, a bootlegging grandfather. Who knows which stories are true and what’s been invented to fill in the unknown gaps of re-discovered and re-created lives?
Mike’s re-created grandfather led quite a life. Born in 1915, Grandpa bummed around as a pool shark and hustler who could be a wildman fiery as any comet. He was educated as an electrical engineer, but as a longtime astronomy and aeronautical enthusiast, he eventually became an aerospace engineer. By Dec. 8, 1941, though, he was broke, bored, and needed a job. So, he enlisted in the Army Corps of Engineers. In the Army, he lost an argument with his better judgment and found himself and another lieutenant in serious trouble for stealing government property. Luckily enough he was rescued by Colonel Wild Bill Donovan and recruited to join the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). The OSS was tasked with capturing German “Black List” scientists, including Wernher von Braun, designer of the V-2 rocket. After the war, Grandpa’s fits of anger landed him 22 months in prison for trying to strangle his employer with a telephone cord. Following his release around 1958, Grandpa’s fortunes changed when he became an engineer and partner at MRX working with Sam Chabon (the other side of the fictional family) to supply Chabon Scientific with 5,000 1:20-scale solid-fueled Aerobee-Hi rockets.
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Grandpa met Grandma in Baltimore in February of 1947. She was a high-strung French woman with a 4-year-old daughter who would become Mike’s mother. From around 1948-1952, Grandma was “Nevermore, the Night Witch,” on the TV show “The Crypt of Nevermore.” If you were a child and allowed to stay up late Fridays, Grandma would freak you out. But Grandma herself was troubled by “the Skinless Horse,” a demon from the war caused by trauma-induced schizophrenia, which haunted her and contributed to her eventual committal to the madhouse. Many years after her release, when Mike was 12, Grandma died of cancer caused by hormone replacement therapy.
Michael Chabon is known for his fondness for metaphors. So, it’s unsurprising that Grandpa advises the fictional Mike:
“Explain everything. Make it mean something. Use a lot of those fancy metaphors of yours. … Start with the night I was born. There was a lunar eclipse that night. ... Very significant. I’m sure it’s a perfect metaphor for something.”
“Kind of trite,” I [Mike] said.
Despite Chabon’s self-deprecating humor, the astronomical metaphor is anything but trite. The real Chabon populates the universe of Mike’s fictional memoir with eclipses, comets and moons; each a celestial body, a piece of the cosmos and a metaphor that resonates with its poetic correlation to the mysteries of family mythology. And, to explore those celestial bodies, those sometimes hidden or lost bodies of family lore, Chabon adds rockets, telescopes, and satellites. Some parts of Mike’s family history are gone; some are unknown. Mother tries to fill in the cosmic gaps by describing the missing celestial pieces – those photographs missing from the family album. Who knows how much of Chabon’s story is true. Who knows how much of our own family stories are true? Who cares? Read this story.
By Michael Chabon
HarperCollins, 448 pages