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 is, and will remain, obsessed with rocket science, space travel, lunar exploration, and the possibility of colonizing the moon; later in life he will spend much of his spare time building models of what such an outpost might look like.
As Chabon sits by his grandfather’s side, the old man’s recollections emerge “in no discernible order,” and the narrative skips back and forth from his deathbed (in Oakland, 1989) to Washington, D.C., and Europe during World War II, from rural New Jersey to downtown Baltimore, from a high-rise in Riverdale to Fontana Village, a retirement community in Florida.
The grandfather combines the spirit of a born troublemaker with that of a seeker and a passionate believer in scientific progress. The boy who defenestrated a cat with impulsive recklessness is shown to have a moral conscience when—as an American soldier present at the liberation of the horrific Nordhausen labor camps, where the Nazis’ V-2 rockets were produced—he realizes that a radical technological advance has been made by slave labor at a terrible cost in human misery and pain. At Nordhausen, his boyish admiration for the German aerospace engineer Wernher von Braun—a presence at various points in the novel—turns to contempt and loathing:
What he saw that day, and what he heard from the survivors he questioned, persuaded him that there was no way Wernher von Braun could have been technical director of the V-2 program while remaining unaware of how business was conducted in the Mittelwerk. Von Braun could not be crowned with the glory of the rocket without shouldering the burden of its shame. All the suffering my grandfather saw had been amassed and all the cruelty deployed at the prompting and in the service of von Braun’s dream. It turned out that the V-2 was not a means to liberate the human spirit from the chains of gravity; it was only a pretext for further enchainment.
Back home, the former soldier finds that the disasters—and the romance—of the war have, in effect, followed him across the Atlantic. Reluctantly attending an event billed as “Night in Monte Carlo” at the Baltimore synagogue where his brother Ray has become the rabbi, he meets his future wife: a beautiful Frenchwoman with numbers tattooed on her forearm and a melancholic little daughter who will grow up to become Michael Chabon’s mother. In one of the book’s most charming scenes, the grandfather first sees the glamorous refugee “posed beside a potted palm,” wearing a borrowed fox wrap and sunglasses, “under a banner that read TRY YOUR LUCK!” The women of the temple sisterhood have decided that she would be the perfect mate for the rabbi, but the attraction between the rabbi’s brother and the lovely Holocaust survivor is mutual, intense, and immediate:
My grandfather heard a sound inside his head that he compared, years later, to the freight-train rumble of an earthquake. He felt he was standing in the path of something fast-moving and gigantic that, in its blindness, was bound to carry him away. Swept off his feet, he thought. This is that.
After an awkward conversation and a misunderstanding about the English words for cathedral, wall, and gargoyle, “my grandmother” ventures a small, bold, intimate gesture that seals the deal:
I don’t know how many people could have seen my grandparents, standing there in the hallway outside the doors of the reception room, whether anyone was paying any attention. But even if they had been standing in an empty room, I imagine that neither my grandfather nor the mores of 1947 can have expected my grandmother to do what she did next. Looking back at that night from inside the soft gray nimbus of Dilaudid, my grandfather could only close his eyes, the way he closed them that night, as she reached out to the fly of his trousers and, tooth by tooth, zipped him up.
“C’est fait,” she said.
During his last months in the Florida retirement home the widowed grandfather falls in love with a woman searching for a lost cat:
He knew that it would…be gentlemanly to put a consolatory arm around Sally Sichel’s shoulder. Not just gentlemanly; it would be humane. But he was afraid of what might happen down the line. A widow and a widower, easing each other’s passage from grief to passion in the autumn of their lives: The very triteness of it seemed to ensure its likelihood.
Repeatedly, the novel teeters on the edge of mawkishness, a brink from which it is mostly, if not always, pulled back by a smart line or exchange. As the grandfather and Sally embrace to the distracting accompaniment of their creaking, arthritic shoulders, Sally asks, “Who was president the last time you just sat around necking with somebody?” “Gerald Ford,” replies the grandfather. “Richard Nixon,” she counters.
For years the grandfather had to deal with his late wife’s traumatic wartime experience. Pregnant at an early age, she found shelter in a Carmelite convent before being deported to Auschwitz, which had set off a recurrent psychosis too severe to be ameliorated by her husband’s love or her daughter’s anxious concern. Haunted by the hideous specter of a skinless horse, she was repeatedly hospitalized and, in one powerful scene, she burns down a tree in which she imagines that the horse is hiding and watching her:
In general, my grandmother in the grip of a mood was inclined to hole up, shut down, or curl inward. But sometimes the woman would just bolt. Taking off that night when the police picked her up, ill-shod, ill-dressed, booking along the sidewalk with a forward cant and her arms held fixed at her sides, conversing with invisibilities of pain, presenting like a classic urban nutcase, flying her Night Witch hair like the flag of madness.
During respites from her illness, the grandmother is a charismatic person who tells fortunes with tarot cards, appears as the smoldering heroine in a regional theater production of The Rose Tattoo, and hosts a local television show on which she plays a witch who introduces horror films. Most important, from her grandson’s point of view, is her gift for inventing stories as she turns up her fortune-telling cards—tales with which she entertains herself (“Anyone who has spent time in the company of small children knows that a crushing boredom can unlock great powers of invention”) and simultaneously terrifies and enchants the small boy left in her care:
The stories gave me nightmares, but while she was telling them I found myself in the company of the grandmother I loved best: playful, exuberant, childlike, fey…. Almost fifty years later I still remember some of her stories. Bits of them have consciously and unconsciously found their way into my work.
Reading this passage, one may decide not only that (the real and fictive) Chabon has borrowed fragments of his grandmother’s stories, but that he has been greatly influenced by her narrative style. “Playful, exuberant, childlike, fey” are adjectives that could just as well be used about Moonglow, describing its strengths as well as its weaknesses. When the novel loses its way, it’s usually when it wanders into the childlike and fey. The grandfather’s improbable hunt for a python that may or may not have devoured Sally Sichel’s dead husband’s cat seems slightly precious, as do the footnotes, digressions, and details such as the tiny figures in the model spaceship that the grandfather builds:
Inside the crew cabin of his Challenger model, one of the webbed panels enclosing the sleep niches could be lifted on a hinge to reveal two miniature human figures…. A man and a woman, five eighths of an inch tall, lay together in a sleep niche, naked in each other’s arms…. When I look at the Challenger mission photograph now, I don’t see the seven smilers, pretty Judy Resnick, or even, really, the model itself. I see the hidden lovers, fates entangled like their bodies, waiting for release from the gravity that held them down all their lives.
We can assume that Chabon’s fascination with the grandfather’s model-building is not accidental but rather an intentional expression of an artistic preference. In an appreciation of Wes Anderson’s films in these pages, Chabon remarks that “Anderson’s films readily, even eagerly, concede the ‘miniature’ quality of the worlds he builds, in their set design and camerawork, in their use of stop-motion, maps, and models.”* And he suggests that works of art are “accurate scale models of this beautiful and broken world.”
How one feels about Anderson’s films and about this aspect of Chabon’s work may depend on one’s response to the notion of art as a dollhouse. I found myself hoping that the model “moon garden” from the grandfather’s table-sized lunar settlement, rescued by his daughter from the dying man’s Florida apartment, didn’t reappear for one final curtain call on the book’s penultimate page; something about it seems to diminish the scope of the novel, and to make Moonglow seem smaller than it is: miniaturized by its own fey charm.
Some passages of dialogue sound less like conversation than like a series of setups and punch lines. When the grandfather’s army roommate asks if he knows how to paddle a canoe, the grandfather recalls a silent film version of The Last of the Mohicans and replies, “I’ve seen it done…. If Bela Lugosi can do it, I can do it.’” Yet many of Chabon’s punch lines work. At the Twelfth Space Congress, a convention held in Cocoa Beach, Florida, the grandfather finally encounters Wernher von Braun, his boyhood idol and the subsequent object of his enmity. Their surprisingly pleasant, collegial chat ends with the grandfather asking:
“How do you feel about Jews on the moon?”
“Beg your pardon?”
“I did a little consulting work for the state of Israel,” my grandfather lied wildly. “They’re putting a lot of muscle and money and brainpower into a next-level system, Jericho 2. Lunar orbiters and landers. To build a Jewish settlement on the Moon.”
Von Braun looked momentarily taken aback but recovered himself. Give him credit: Having generated so much of his own in his lifetime, the man knew bullshit when he heard it. “Perfect,” he said. “Just the place for them.”
Chabon knows how to extend a metaphor precisely far enough, and many of his observations are fresh. The grandfather inhales his young stepdaughter’s “school smell, a smell like the flavor of a postage stamp.” When he first sees his future wife, at the synagogue’s gambling party:
Everything—the music, the lights, the rattle of wheels and dice, the outbursts of joy or disgust from the tables, his clothes, his skin—seemed to fit the man too tightly. Only his eyes had found a way to escape. They leaped to my grandmother from the hollows of his face as though from the windows of a burning house.
Beth Isaac, the synagogue where the mourning grandfather goes to say kaddish, is
housed in a midcentury modernist chalet whose A-frame gables of azure blue betrayed its original career as an International House of Pancakes. Indeed, the shul was known locally, my grandfather learned, as Beth IHOP.
In the final sections of the novel, Michael Chabon (the character) finds new and startling information. His grandmother, he discovers, has most probably lied about her origins, about her daughter’s parentage, and about her own activities during the war. By the novel’s conclusion, crimes have been confessed, mysteries solved, or partly solved. Details that seemed intriguing but not critically important turn out to open doors that the family has kept locked. Among these telling details is a snapshot of Chabon’s mother as a teenager, astride a horse, holding a bow and arrow, and looking “murderous.”
The novel is knowing about the ways in which a collection of family photos can illuminate and conceal the truth about what that family was really like. Chabon and his mother look through an album and find that the earliest pictures (taken in Europe before the war) are unaccountably missing, and the mother must reconstruct them from memory for her son and for the reader:
It was rare for my mother to play a hand of memory with cards that the war and its brutalities had dealt her, but when she did, regardless of what was lying faceup on the table, the hole card always seemed to be guilt.
Ultimately what matters for the reader is that the grandfather is a terrific character: difficult, complex, admirable—at once unique and typical of a generation: World War II vets, cold war science wonks, big personalities, the sons of immigrants striving to make it as far as the middle class, capable of being decent, warmhearted, easily enraged. Audacious and accomplished, Moonglow is a four-hundred-page love letter to that generation, and one is thankful to Chabon for having brought one of those characters so vividly back to life.