Michael Chabon Wins a National Jewish Book Award
Moonglow: A Novel by Michael Chabon. (Harper, 430 pp.).
Michael Chabon introduces his newest novel, Moonglow, by explaining that it’s not a novel at all, but it’s not quite a memoir either: “I have stuck to facts except when facts refused to conform with memory, narrative purpose or the truth as I prefer to understand it.” That line could be the definition of creative nonfiction itself, for what writer does not sometimes twist personal history for his or her own purposes? In this case, the history is that of Chabon’s grandfather, which he kept mostly secret from his grandson until the last weeks of his life.
Philadelphians especially will enjoy Chabon’s descriptions of his maternal grandfather’s early life in working-class Jewish South Philadelphia at the beginning of the 20th century. Curious, brilliant and often silent, Chabon’s grandfather puts himself through Drexel University (then Drexel Tech) in the 1930s by hustling pool and delivering pianos for Wanamaker’s. His lifelong passion for astronomy and rocketry permeates every aspect of this story. During World War II, he serves in the Army Corps of Engineers and then in the Office of Strategic Services, which drops him behind enemy lines just as the war is ending. He is to track down “the Black List,” the Third Reich scientists, technicians and engineers behind the V-2 rocket, which has been used to wreak destruction all over Allied Europe. He’s to get information, but also to recruit these Nazis for United States intelligence, which is already anticipating the Cold War. What this does to Chabon’s grandfather’s psyche, and the choices he makes going forward, is at the heart of this psychologically compelling portrait.
The story is circular in structure, which helps the writer make interesting connections, but can also be confusing. For instance, in one long suspenseful passage set in 1945 in the German countryside, where his grandfather searches farmhouses for documents buried by fleeing Nazis, we’re suddenly interrupted by the adult grandson interviewing his grandfather on his deathbed for more information. Or, in another section describing parts of his grandmother’s mysterious girlhood, we’re interrupted by a scene with Chabon and his mother in their kitchen in early 1980s Berkeley, Calif. I sometimes wished Chabon the narrator, in all his postmodern splendor, would get out of the way. I also wished he’d given his grandparents names, instead of endlessly referring to them as “my grandfather” and “my grandmother,” which resulted, among other things, in some cringeworthy sex scenes.
Though his grandfather’s love of rockets and space travel gets the most ink in this novel, it is his grandmother’s story and the secrets she’s kept from everyone, including herself, that drive the suspense for this reader. She is both beautiful and broken, self-dramatizing, highly creative and endlessly charismatic. The descriptions of her life before and during the war, her struggles with serious mental illness in adulthood and the touching relationship Chabon had with her as a child when his parents were breaking up are all masterful. I started out reading to learn about Chabon’s grandfather, but it was his grandmother’s story that kept me turning the pages.
Sharon Pomerantz, author of Rich Boy, is at work on her second novel.