The Pulitzer Prize-winning author’s latest novel takes us on a captivating journey through a family’s history. Chabon will appear at the downtown Seattle Public Library on Dec. 1.
by Michael Chabon
Harper, 436 pages, $28.99
There is a scene early in “Moonglow,” Pulitzer-Prize winning author Michael Chabon’s intoxicating new novel, when the narrator recalls his grandmother showing him how to tell a story by means of “a magical deck of fortune telling cards for witches.” Chabon himself follows an analogous method, shuffling through years and decades and dealing out seemingly at random a succession of captivating stories. Reading “Moonglow” feels like unpacking an old trunk packed with forgotten family heirlooms, each uniquely precious object held to the light where it glows with its own secret significance.
Most of the intriguing anecdotes that make up the bulk of Chabon’s ingenious fictional memoir issue from his dying grandfather (we never learn his name), a larger-than-life figure whose habitual terseness is loosened by painkillers, divulging a mind whose “flights of preposterous idealism were matched only by its reveries of unfettered violence … ‘Did I tell you,’ he said, lolling on his palliative cloud, ‘about the time I dropped a kitten out of the window?’” Each story that follows has a similar magnetism.
There’s the fateful scene straight out of a Coen brothers film in which he nearly strangles his soon-to-be-ex-employer with a telephone cord, landing himself in prison. Or the formative adolescent encounter with a consumptive sideshow hermaphrodite in a Philadelphia railroad yard. Then there’s the time he and an Army buddy rig a bridge in Washington, D.C., with explosives just to make a point, and are rescued from punishment by none other than OSS director “Wild” Bill Donovan, who then enlists them to “pick Germany’s pocket” by capturing enemy scientists during the Allied advance.
The author of “Moonglow” will appear at 7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 1, at the Seattle Public Library, 1000 Fourth Ave. Free (206-386-4636; spl.org).
Thus begins the grandfather’s lifelong fixation with his nemesis, rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, whose role both in the genocidal atrocities of the German munitions works that produced his V-2 rocket, and as the mastermind of America’s moon landing, places him at the unlikely crossroads of the Holocaust and the Space Age.
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When grandfather and grandmother meet in 1947 at their synagogue’s Monte Carlo Night, he is stunned when she reaches out and zips up his fly. He becomes determined to both rescue and bed this mysterious Frenchwoman, a refugee who, with her young daughter (the narrator’s mother), had “passed through the fire without being consumed.” Her enchanting recklessness and changeability prove to be portents of an incipient madness that will manifest in terrifying visions of a phantasmal and obscene “Skinless Horse.” In one of its many cameos, the ever-present moon looks down on her bereft husband, who imagines it a refuge where, “230,000 miles from the stench of history, there was no madness or memory of loss.” In his waning years, he colonizes a dining-room table with a meticulous scale model of this fanciful lunar settlement.
In less masterful hands, this pell-mell assortment of anecdotes and digressions might seem indulgent, but Chabon is a virtuoso storyteller who quickly allays any uncertainty about our destination by engaging us in an utterly captivating journey. Line by line, page by page, scene by scene, Chabon’s prose is an absolute joy to read. With seemingly effortless invention, he combines startling images and vivid metaphors, shattering emotional truths, and the wry compassion of his early titles with the dynamism and flow of his more recent escapist fiction — resulting in that delightful rarity: a Proustian page-turner.
“Moonglow” entertains us with a nostalgic panorama of the Greatest Generation, while sobering us with a moving journey to the dark side of that boisterous myth. Most important, Chabon relates — with inexhaustible eloquence and an infectious sense of wonder — one hell of a good story.