MOONGLOW, by Michael Chabon. Harper, 430 pp., $28.99.
“At the end of my grandfather’s life,” explains “Michael Chabon,” the narrator of this novel — a high-spirited pack of lies rakishly masquerading as a memoir — “the doctor prescribed a powerful hydromorphone against the pain of bone cancer.” At this point, Mike, the family graphomaniac, showed up at his bedside, “just as Dilaudid was bringing his soft hammer to bear on his habit of silence,” and spent the next week getting the unexpected lowdown on a life full of secrets, an epic autobiography that begins with a kitten pitched from a third-story window in Philadelphia and wraps up with a quest to save a house cat named Ramon from a killer snake in the wilderness surrounding a Florida retirement village. This delicious if not very straightforward novel from Chabon, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” “Wonder Boys” and “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh” among others, will delight fans of this author, revisiting his trademark obsessions with history, science and Jewish identity.
In the course of the deathbed visit, his grandfather explicitly charges the author with telling his story. “Make it mean something,” he says. “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.” Meaning and metaphor are no problem for Chabon, but the mishmash is another matter. His version keeps numerous parts of the story going at once, ignoring the grandfather’s suggestion that it begin at the beginning, on the day he was born in 1915. His birth occurred during a lunar eclipse, which he suggests might be “a perfect metaphor for something.”
His grandson shrugs this off as “kind of trite.”
But who’s he kidding? This is a novel devoted to rocketry and obsessed with the lunar landing; a novel in which one character hums Glen Miller’s “Moonglow” while another devotes years to building a “moon garden;” in which Werner von Braun, appearing at the Twelfth Space Congress in Cocoa Beach, Florida, will be called to account: “How do you feel about Jews on the moon?” This is a novel called “Moonglow.” Maybe the grandfather was on to something.
Far from unscrambling the story, Mike has it running on numerous parallel tracks: prewar, wartime, postwar, including the grandfather’s time in prison and the grandmother’s time in a mental hospital; the Philly years, the Baltimore years, the Florida years and the afternoon in Mantoloking, New Jersey, in 2013 when the biggest secret of the whole book turns up in the files of the grandmother’s long-dead psychiatrist, in one of a few boxes not washed away by superstorm Sandy.
The grandfather is a fantastic and complicated character: a genius and troublemaker, brooding logician, ethical brute, romantic, funny, macho, unquestioningly devoted to his difficult wife and daughter, both brilliant characters as well. Lacking any strong central plot, the story races between his escapades as a soldier, inventor, convict, family man and retiree, introducing partners in crime like his war buddy Alvin Aughenbaugh, a rocket scientist who wore a cardigan and said things like “Oh shish kebab!” “Whenever life called for foul language, Aughenbaugh broke into a reserve of quaint midwestern euphemisms. There seemed to be hundreds, rarely repeated.
“My grandfather had met few Lutherans. He wondered if they were handed some kind of list to memorize as children.”
The story of Aughenbaugh’s demise is one of the many long-held secrets the grandfather deals out in his confession, as is the fate of the lost cat in Florida. This particular adventure involves a security guard at the retirement village named Devaughn; it is he who provided the machete and drove the getaway car. “Devaughn was almost as old as the people he was paid to protect. He had been born and raised in the part of Florida that was really Georgia and Alabama. No one was sure if he was white or black — it could have gone either way — and those residents of Fontana Village who were deputized or inspired to ask found that in his presence, their nerve failed them or the relevance of the question dwindled away.”
Meanwhile, “across the feral golf course on the other side of the fence, a million insects played a one-note tone poem entitled ‘Heat.’ ”
I think I could have identified the author of that sentence even if I saw it out of context. The publisher’s official description of this book calls it as “Chabon at his most Chabonesque.” That is just right. And I, for one, could read sentences like that all day.