Chabon, Michael. Moonglow. HarperCollins, New York. 2016. F;2/17.
Michael Chabon reminds me of TC Boyle: an author who at his best is very good indeed, and for whom I keep rooting, with each new novel, that he will return to the great success of (in Chabon’s case) The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay. Here, he comes close and had me on the edge of my seat in the first half wishing against wish that he’d keep it up, only to finish just a teeny wee bit short of my wildest dreams. I’ll see if I can elaborate…
The narrator is playfully Michael Chabon himself, and the story is about his wonderful, fatally-flawed and brilliantly human grandfather, and his grandmother, both fictional. It’s not distracting that we leap back and forth from the grandfather’s stories on his deathbed to his World War II experiences, the difficult middle years of his marriage, and Michael’s experiences with his mother, the grandmother’s daughter and grandfather’s step-daughter.
Grandfather is an electrical and aeronautics engineer who participates in Operation Paperclip toward the end of the war, tracking down and beating the Russians to capture German rocketry geniuses including Werner Von Braun. His wife whom he meets after the war is very complex, psychotic perhaps traumatically although it appears she may never have experienced the death camps, and comes accompanied by her little girl, ultimately Michael’s mother.
The grandfather is a charmingly mid-20th-century American can-do male, quietly and without fanfare outsmarting others where necessary, but while potentially capable of participating in or even directing the design of the American space program, accomplishes in reality only scale models of spaceships, but more credibly and importantly somehow manages to keep his mostly out-of-control marriage from fatally crashing. His wife spends time in a mental hospital, he spends time in a minimum-security prison for physically losing his temper, and after his wife’s death he has a late-life affair with a lady living nearby in a Florida gated community.
An uncle, the grandfather’s brother, is a fourflushing rabbi and then salesman who generously takes Michael’s mother, a confused but sexy 15-year-old, under his wing while the grandfather is in jail, and loses one of his eyes when she shoots an arrow at him in retaliation for taking advantage of her.
The narrator reads Salinger short stories. Sure enough there is something about Michael Chabon reminiscent of JD Salinger as I remember him from the 1960s when I was in high school. It’s not a tone of playfulness exactly, but a willingness to give fantasy its rein, and a charming soft-focused sentimentality that seems to be saying, “Sure, the people I write about (and if it comes to that me too I guess) aren’t Ozymandias or Hamlet, but they are real, they have feelings, and so do my descriptions of them.” Like TC Boyle (who is much less forgiving and more abrasive) Chabon at his best carries us along, and away, with his exuberance, and whatever implied apology for sentimentality he makes we (at least I) happily accept.
Chabon is capable of writing alongside any but the very most accomplished. The excitement and scope of his imaginary worlds are anchored in beautifully sophisticated irony of characters and turns of phrase. And there is plenty of that to enrich his emotional energy in this book, especially in the first half. When Chabon somehow maintains his ironically innocent childlike high whimsy through an entire novel as he did in Kavalier and Klay I finish the book with a quiet inner cheer: success!
Chabon is 55-ish and writing about an elderly man at the end of his life. In the early going reading Moonglow I was happy to identify with a self-image that had matured from a Wonder Boy to a kind of philosophical mean old man. He prompts me to pronounce “success” here more nearly than he did in Telegraph Avenue, where I felt he wasn’t completely comfortable in the skin of his characters.
In Moonglow I feel that comfort, even though Michael Chabon might not have loaded quite enough solid fuel for a completely successful moonshot. 8.2/9.0