Moonglow Not Chabon's Best, but Holds Intrigue


Michael Chabon
HarperCollins, 428 pages

Michael Chabon's Moonglow is a novel. Or is it? The book's narrator is called Mike and two of its major characters have no name other "my grandfather" and "my grandmother." Many have speculated the book is either wholly or partially autobiographical, assertions upon which Chabon coyly refuses to comment. Is it or isn't it; that's not really the question. Better to ask is it a good book, and my assessment is that it's a mixed bag. It is, at turns, eloquent and gripping, but also plodding and self-indulgent.

The book's set up is that Mike is summoned to his grandfather's deathbed and, over the course of ten days, hears tales that are part confessional, part historical, and part familial. As befits such a scenario, the book plays lose with linear time. Our first major incident unfolds in 1957, but the book's core is revealed in a 1944 exchange between grandfather and William Donovan, who headed the Office of Strategic Services—the forerunner of the CIA—during World War II. Donovan was recruiting intelligence officers to go deep into Germany during the war's waning days and unearth information about Nazi rocketry. As a man nicknamed "Wild Bill," he wasted no time with pretense. "You've been looking for trouble your whole life," says he to grandfather. The book's central tension is whether that's literally true, or if our protagonist is simply the sort of chap that trouble always manages to find. He's certainly the sort who marches to a different drummer, a trait we glimpse in his adolescence, the war years, the 1950s, and into old age.

Donovan's task suits grandfather well, as he is an introspective man obsessed with rockets. As a youth, when not hustling pool, he built detailed scale models of missiles and launch facilities, a hobby that took on greater sophistication and continued throughout his life. By 1944, he was also obsessed with Wernher von Braun, whom he wished to eliminate. In the book, he came close to finding his quarry; there is a harrowing showdown between he and Stolzmann, another Nazi scientist failing to pose as a farmer. Of course, we know that he didn't get von Braun. If you think that the morality of government today has problems, consider that Operation Paperclip granted residency and eventual citizenship to at least 1600 Nazi scientists, including von Braun. Many of these individuals became the foundation of both America's nuclear weapons programs and of NASA. This gives poignancy to the grandfather, who has retired to Florida and never misses a rocket launch at Cape Canaveral.    

If only von Braun were his only tension. After the war grandfather acquires a French-born wife who already has a child: Mike's mother. She's exotic, vibrant, wild, a Jewish survivor of Nazi death camps, and as mad as a March hare. Grandmother spends much of Mike's childhood in and out of asylums before dying—often obsessed with images of the "Skinless Horse." To say that grandfather didn't live a conventional life is an understatement. About that 1957 'incident,' Mike's grandparents were living in Philadelphia when grandfather went berserk when he lost his job with a barrette manufacturer who fired him to give a job to a recent parolee: Alger Hiss! Hiss left prison and grandfather went to Wallkill for almost murdering his ex-employer. Add "jail bird" to his checkered résumé.

Moonglow, which takes its name from a Benny Goodman standard, is filled with quirks such as these. There are also offbeat relatives such as his flamboyant rabbi brother and a late-in-life love interest; also amusing incidents involving bad theme parties, a missing cat, Tarot cards, python hunting, and grandfather's propensity for finding himself amidst smart alecks and fast talkers whom he can't decide if likes of loathes. On the more serious side there are questions about Jewish identity, PTSD, and mental illness. A Zippo lighter operates as Chabon's version of Chekov's gun. Some of my favorite parts are of Chabon's descriptions of 1950s culture. You can almost sniff your way through the decade via remembrances of the smells of Lifebuoy soap, Prell, Ban, smoke-filled rooms, and Tom Collins cocktails.

As noted, the structure is non-linear. Although this gives the hook of capturing remembrances verisimilitude, it also makes for ragged reading on occasion. There are also passages that reference and are inspired by Gravity's Rainbow, which isn't necessarily a good thing. That Thomas Pynchon novel also covers World War II and rocketry, but I'm among those who found it overrated, unreadable, and pretentious. Some of those traits rubbed off on Chabon. When he's at his best, Moonglow is like The Things They Carried in the way it blurs fiction and non-fiction. Unlike Tim O'Brien, Chabon isn't consistent within that voice. I'm sure that some readers will find his handling of Nazi death camps—his protagonist helps liberate Nordhausen—oddly matter of fact in tone and ponder over why a Jewish character would allow a rocket obsession to take precedence over the surrounding horrors.

  Whether autobiographical or not, Moonglow is a bit like its namesake title. It mostly glows dimly rather than brightly, thought illumined d by the occasional supermoon. It's certainly worth reading, but it doesn't rank among Chabon gems such as The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Wonder Boys, Telegraph Avenue, or the Pulitzer-winning Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.

Rob Weir

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