Chabon’s “Moonglow” cun­ning

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - By Ron Charles

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 bat­tle­torn 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.

FIC­TION Moonglow By Michael Chabon (Harper)

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