Michael Chabon, of course, needs no introduction. But you may wonder whether his latest book, Moonglow: A Novel, is actually a novel or a memoir. He calls this work a novel in the title itself and so it is, but he also refers to it as a memoir and so it often seems. He cautions you in the beginning with the following sentence (from his Author’s Note): “. . . . I have stuck to the facts except when facts refused to conform with memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as I prefer to understand it.” Clear enough?
But trust me, once you start reading, you’ll think, “Who cares?”
This terrific, sprightly book is about building a model of a Jewish colony on the moon. Well, not really. Mostly, it’s about his grandfather (the model-builder), reimagined in detail that’s as close-fitting as a grand prix champion’s driving gloves. Much of the book depends heavily on information apparently gathered by limning his grandfather’s thoughts as he lay dying. Some of it is written in first person as Michael Chabon, while the bulk is written in close third person following the character of said grandfather, including harrowing moments of his journey in World War II, written so vividly you could swear you were there, watching as a decapitated German officer perches atop his motorcycle at a muddy crossroads. (Incidentally–though not so incidental to the story–he was crossing Germany as fast as he could in the twilight of the war, in pursuit of Werner von Braun.)
Those same lively details rivet your attention in scenes within a mental institution or while on a snake-hunt in Florida. You’ll also see the inside of a prison, and wonder at what the man was able to get away with in defiance of both guards and common sense, as well as the rather extraordinary, and resourceful, compassion shown to a fellow inmate. Truly, the grandfather is an amazing, novel-sized character: fiercely intelligent, a wizard at model-building, sometimes an engineer, sometimes an entrepreneur or a salesman or pool hustler, at once immensely practical and highly impractical, stubborn, irascible, foolhardy, and as loyal to his periodically schizophrenic wife as is humanly possible.
That grandmother is a novel-sized character as well, her own story managing to be heart-warming, horrifying, and sexy in equal parts. The scene where those two meet has a twist you’ll never see coming. In short, this “memoir” is a big, sprawling, beautifully constructed hodgepodge of a novel, and really quite wonderful.
I’m not sure how much “memoir-istic license” was taken in developing the eventual, quite serendipitous meeting between the grandfather and Werner von Braun, a man whom he was missioned to dispose of (yes!) in that long-ago, muddy chase across Germany in World War Two, but never mind. It makes a great story.
Moonglow is pure Chabon magic, no matter what you call it.
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