On his deathbed, a cantankerous old Jewish guy, his habitual reticence disarmed by a painkiller, tells his life story to his grandson, a writer named Michael Chabon. This scenario, the premise of Chabon’s new novel, may make Moonglow sound more syrupy, more gimmicky—and less entertaining—than it is. In fact it’s engrossing to witness the feisty grandfather’s final days with his entranced Boswell of a grandson, and to watch Chabon avoid the pitfalls of tedium and—the greater risk here—sentimentality. Whatever initial resistance we may have to the notion of dying Grandpa, high on Dilaudid, looking back on his long and colorful career is rapidly overcome by Chabon’s obvious pleasure in storytelling, by his gift for writing dialogue with the snap of a screwball comedy, and by his skill at making disparate elements of plot and character come together to reveal a design that owes something to both the Victorian and the magical-realist novel.
When we first meet “my grandfather,” as he is referred to throughout the book, he is physically attacking the president of Feathercombs, a New York company that manufactures and sells elaborate wire barrettes. It is 1957, and he has just been informed that he is being fired from his job as a salesman in order to create a vacant position for Alger Hiss, who has recently been released from jail. The grandfather’s crime, nearly garroting his boss with a phone cord, lands him in Wallkill Prison. The book is packed with equally dramatic events that reveal the grandfather’s volatile chemistry of “preposterous idealism” and “unfettered violence.”
One can read Chabon’s novel as an exploration of anger—a study of how one man’s innate rage is exacerbated by the horrors of the twentieth century and by their impact on his personal history. “Life had afforded his anger ample fuel. But the truth was that anger required no trigger or pretext. It was sourceless, a part of him, like yearning, curiosity, or sadness. Anger was his birthright.”
Raised among the warring immigrant factions of gritty South Philadelphia, the grandfather learns, early on, how to protect and defend himself:
If you hoped to avoid a beating on Christian Street, you could alter your gait and the cant of your head to look as though you were walking where you belonged. When that failed—or if, like my grandfather, you were not averse to scrapping—you fought dirty. Even Christian Street bravos squealed like babies if you hooked your thumbs in their eye sockets.
Meanwhile his burgeoning scientific curiosity is already taking peculiar, repellent forms—as a boy, he throws a kitten out of a window just to see what will happen—that will eventually affect his career in the army and his work as an electrical engineer. He…
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