Michael Chabon, that Pulitzer Prize-winning wonder boy, has soared around the world looking for characters to satisfy his lust for outlandish stories. “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” drew a young magician from Prague. “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” pursued the Diaspora to a Jewish settlement in Alaska. But for all Chabon’s delightful inventiveness, there have always been hints — sometimes more than hints — that he was performing a cunning dance with autobiography.
Even before his new novel, “Moonglow,” begins, it warps the barrier between his actual life and his fantasy life. “In preparing this memoir,” Chabon writes in an author’s note, “I have stuck to facts except when facts refused to conform with memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as I prefer to understand it.” If that doesn’t put would-be biographers on guard, he adds that liberties have been taken with all the details “with due abandon.”
What we do know for sure is that “Moonglow” is a wondrous book that celebrates the power of family bonds and the slipperiness of memory. Chabon suggests that it was written as an act of rebellion against his upbringing. “Keeping secrets was the family business,” he says, “but it was a business that none of us ever profited from.” His courage to break that code of silence was inspired by stories his dying grandfather told him more than 25 years ago. “His fetish for self-reliance made him secretive,” Chabon says, but their final meeting produced an unusual torrent of reminiscence. “Ninety percent of everything he ever told me about his life,” Chabon writes, “I heard during the final ten days.” And — what do you know! — the old man turns out to have been a Jewish superhero with a brain “whose flights of preposterous idealism were matched only by its reveries of unfettered violence.”
We get a sense of that remarkable brain in the opening pages, when his grandfather, laid off from a New York barrette factory to make room for Alger Hiss, chokes his boss with a telephone cord. That fusion of history, slapstick and menace sets the trajectory for the rest of this lovable novel. Fortunately, his boss survives, but Grandfather ends up in prison, which sends his life ricocheting toward model rockets, moonscapes and even python poop.
But the most dramatic stories draw us back to Grandfather’s service in World War II, when he enlists in the Corps of Engineers because it was hard for a pool shark to find work in Philadelphia. Early on, a potentially disastrous prank almost gets him court martialed, but, instead, an officer recognizes his derring-do. Cultivating a reputation for stealthy brutality, he gets a secret assignment to track down the Nazis’ V-2 rocket engineers. These are the brilliant men, he thinks, who might someday make it possible to reach the moon, that oasis of tranquility, 230,000 miles away, where there is “no madness or memory loss.” Whether he finds them or not, we know he’s moving toward a case of disillusionment from which there can be no cure.
Hiking through battle-torn France and Germany, his adventures are harrowing, even if sparked with moments of comedy and a touch of James Bond wizardry. Rumors of the ongoing Holocaust hover over Europe, too extraordinary to fathom, too horrible to ignore. This is Chabon at his magical best, stitching his grandfather into the fabric of the 20th century in a way that seems either ludicrous or plausible depending on how the light hits. But the real irony is that the most ridiculous moments are often those that are historically accurate. No comedy or tragedy can trump reality.
Chabon presents these family legends with vibrant immediacy, extending certain mysteries, heightening suspense, setting us up for poignant revelations later on. Only now and then are we jolted out of Grandfather’s amazing adventures to be reminded that Chabon and his mother are tending this tough old man in the final days of his life. “After I’m gone,” Grandfather tells him, “write it down. Explain everything. Make it mean something. Use a lot of those fancy metaphors of yours. Put the whole thing in proper chronological order, not like this mishmash I’m making you.”
But nothing so linear happens here. His grandfather’s stories come to us in a hypnotic swirl of time that expands to include the heartbreaking story of his mentally ill wife and his escapades as an elderly romantic. If Chabon relished a certain degree of showiness in his previous novels — those fancy metaphors of his, along with an acrobatic style unlike anyone else’s — that’s largely absent in “Moonglow.” Here, his artistry is all the more remarkable for being essentially invisible. He listens, the ink and paper seem to fade away, and we leap with his grandfather from one spectacular, horrific or hilarious ordeal after another. “Hindsight, and a taste for melodrama, and some faint ghost of veritable memory” coalesce to produce the irresistible light of “Moonglow.” It’s a thoroughly enchanting story about the circuitous path that a life follows, about the accidents that redirect it, and about the secrets that can be felt but never seen, like the dark matter at the center of every family’s cosmos.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World. You can follow him @RonCharles.
On Dec. 6 at 7 p.m., Michael Chabon will be at Sixth & I, 600 I St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20001. For ticket information, call 202-364-1919.
By Michael Chabon
Harper. 430 pp. $28.99