Moonglow by Michael Chabon

moonglowIf you grew up in an extended family, you might know what I’m talking about — that feeling of sitting around at holiday get-togethers, listening to elder relatives reminisce about the Old Days. When you’re a kid and don’t know any better, it’s a real snooze. (When’s dessert?) But as you mature and grasp that your parents and grandparents are actually real people with rich, complicated pasts, it can be a fascinating experience — especially when long-kept secrets are unearthed.

 The same can be said for Michael Chabon’s latest work, Moonglow, a quasi-memoir couched in a novel’s clothing. Inspired by the author’s weeklong visit in 1989 to his mother’s home in California, where his grandfather lay dying, the book is both a hotchpotch stroll down memory lane, and an exercise in exploring the slippery nature of truth, memory and what makes a compelling story.

Mirroring the real Michael Chabon’s experience, the book unfolds as a retelling of his grandfather’s deathbed confessions. Hopped up on hydromorphone, the normally tight-lipped man — unnamed throughout the book — compulsively spills the beans about his past to his grandson Mike, the novel’s narrator, before he dies.

“You try to take advantage of the time you have. That’s what they tell you to do. But when you’re old, you look back and you see all you did with all that time, is waste it. All you have is a story of things you never started or couldn’t finish,” he says to Mike. “You can have it. I’m giving it to you. After I’m gone, write it down. Explain everything. Make it mean something. Use a lot of those fancy metaphors of yours.”

At first, the effect is disorienting and, dare I say, frustrating. Because Chabon barrels through by piling on anecdotes from different periods of Grandpa’s life without laying sufficient groundwork — Grandpa’s arrest in 1957 for nearly strangling his boss with a telephone wire after getting fired; the time he and a mate planted live explosives on federal property during an Army Corps of Engineers training session in 1941; his obsessive escapade tracking the V-2 rocket and Nazi aerospace engineer Wernher von Braun across Germany post-World War II — it can be difficult to maintain a firm handle on the narrative. The tangential asides and footnotes don’t help matters either.

Still, sticking with Grandpa’s Dilaudid-induced recollections is essential. As with any family history, the deeper you probe and the more patience you have to piece vignettes together, the more enthralling his story becomes.

Take his 20-month stint in Wallkill after his arrest, a cushy correctional facility built during FDR’s presidency complete with greenhouses, craft shops and a radio repair workshop. Chabon’s absorbing account of Grandpa’s time there — afternoons spent constructing radios out of cigar boxes; building his first model rocket, an act that leads to a career in the field; sneaking up to the roof to watch a piece of the rocket that launched Sputnik fall from the sky like “an everlasting arc of freedom” — speaks volumes about Grandpa’s strength and character. Though away from his wife and child, his internment at Wallkill seems less like a prison sentence and more like a much-needed respite from reality.

Grandpa’s frisky relationship with a buxom neighbor in his Florida retirement community — his first in 13 years after his wife’s death — lends a refreshing integrity to the mechanics of sex as a widowed septuagenarian. There’s humor there — at this stage, he “looks the retired director of a Zionist summer camp.” (Think baggy shorts and sandals over socks.) But there’s also an ample amount of passion and honest talk both in and out of the bedroom. It’s a portrait that’s thankfully devoid of the usual corniness or the implication that lust vanishes after 50.

Where the book really opens up is Chabon’s depiction of Mike’s grandparents’ multilayered, deep-boned marriage. Back from the war in 1947, Grandpa first lays eyes on his future wife at a themed “Night in Monte Carlo” event at Ahavas Sholom synagogue in suburban Baltimore. His inner monologue tells you everything about their first years together: “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.

What’s missing here is everything that comes later, mainly Grandma’s lurking shape-shifting madness and the effect it has on her family. The metaphorical Skinless Horse that torments her thoughts and spirit. The two years she spends in Greystone Psychiatric Hospital, complete with insulin shock treatment and electroconvulsive therapy. The wonky play she directs and stars in while there (a knockout scene). And through all of it, Grandpa’s steadfast loyalty.

As with this review, by the end of the Moonglow, there are many holes purposely left unfilled. But it isn’t giving too much away to hint that Grandma’s past is not what she’s led everyone to believe it is.

Chabon also doesn’t fully explore Mike’s tough-cookie mother’s feelings about her parents, the sordid details that contributed to his parents’ divorce, or his deeper feelings about his grandfather’s stories. But isn’t that the point of storytelling? To leave some things open to the imagination and to interpretation? To leave your audience wanting more?

Besides, just what is Chabon getting at by presenting his latest work as a “memoir” peppered with real people (von Braun, for one) and real places in the form of a novel? It begs the age-old question: Is it possible to ever know what actually happened in anyone’s past?

Are stories “just names and dates and places [that don’t] add up to anything?” like Grandpa suggests? Or are they, instead, something more illusive, more aching, more mysterious and meaningful. In terms of Moonglow, it’s definitely the latter.

Originally ran in the San Francisco Chronicle (November 18, 2016)

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