2017-03-16 / Opinions

Book Review

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Michael Chabon has published thirteen books before Moonglow. Each is imaginative and entertaining, and each is very different from the others, though there is often a continuing thread of ideas and attitude. For Moonglow he has chosen the form of conversations with the writer’s dying grandfather.

Chabon’s humor is not often of the laugh-out-loud kind, but dry and understated. For example, in the “Author’s Note” at the beginning, he says, “Wherever liberties have been taken with names, dates, places, events, and conversations, … the reader is assured they have been taken with due abandon.”

Then he goes on to set the scene at his grandfather’s bedside as his grandfather begins his sporadic account of episodes from his (very unusual) life. There was an occasion when he was four years old that was unfortunate for a cat. When Mike (the narrator) asks why he did it, the old man replies, “Curiosity.” Mike comments that he had heard curiosity could be harmful, in particular to cats.

He had grown up in South Philadelphia and was always tough and unpredictable. He served in World War II as one of the soldiers of the OSS, an assignment appropriate to his personality. But he emerges from the war with a sort of undiagnosed traumatic stress. Careless of what others think of him, he falls hard for a young woman he meets at a party at a synagogue that his brother drags him to.

She is beautiful but damaged from her own experiences as a refugee in the war. One of the ways that the reader is kept in suspense is the realization that some characters are not telling the truth, or at least the whole truth. The grandfather’s stories seem to be real but because he tells them out of chronological order and because he is taking a lot of pain killers, the reader is often uneasy (which is part of the charm).

The story begins with an account of why the grandfather had been in jail for two years. His wife had a four-year-old daughter when they met, who would become the narrator’s mother. She, too, had adventures, especially after her mother had to spend time in a mental institution.

Then there is Uncle Ray, a successful (for a time) ne’er-do-well. And Sally, who lives near Mr. Chabon in the Florida retirement complex. Mike’s father was another untrustworthy man, who helped to cause the family’s financial problems. The closest person to a villain is Wernher von Braun, a former Nazi who helped the U.S. reach the moon. The grandfather tells about his own obsession with rockets and his horror when he saw what had happened at the operation that von Braun was in charge of in Germany, and planned to kill the perpetrator.

Moonglow is about story-telling and about people and relationships and what enables us to endure. It is available at the Mary Willis Library.

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