Moonglow by Michael Chabon
Review by Sean Towey
I firmly believe that Michael Chabon is one of the greatest American stylists writing today, and for evidence I produce these lines: “He would put his hand on von Braun’s shoulder the way the old priest’s gnarled paw now lay benedictive on his own. He would transmit to von Braun the only message lonely slaves of gravity might send: We see you—we are here.” In these lines, the novel’s protagonist, ostensibly Michael Chabon’s grandfather, stares at a V-2 rocket with an elderly German priest amid the wreckage of World War II. Grandpa is a badass Army operative with a serious love of all things rocket-related, and in the V-2 he sees something loaded with potential beauty (that is, the promise of space travel) turned into a weapon of untold destruction.
The V-2 rocket becomes the central image in a book full of metaphors, but the recurring concept is that death and splendor, life and malice, are not separate. In the world Chabon constructs, each pole lies buried within us, and the characters often do their worst while trying to do their best. If that isn’t a much-needed message in the dark age of Trump, I don’t know what is.
The novel’s basic conceit is that in 1989 a writer named Michael Chabon interviews his dying grandfather and that Michael Chabon has formed those interviews into a single comprehensible narrative. Moonglow’s cover calls it a novel. It is dedicated “To them.” An author’s note says, “In preparing this memoir, I have stuck to facts except when facts refused to conform with memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as I prefer to understand it.” In the acknowledgements, Chabon credits his mother’s uncle Stanley Werbrow for providing much of the base material.
What follows is a Jewish-American saga that touches on almost everything Americans feel proud of achieving over the last seventy years. Grandpa gets in good-natured fistfights as a young man growing up in South Philadelphia, back when “you didn’t have to worry about guns and fights were fights,” as my own grandfather would say. Through his own ingenuity and John Wayne masculinity, Grandpa is invited to join an Army intelligence unit tasked with chasing down Nazi scientists. In post-war Baltimore, he falls in love with a beautiful French woman with a concentration camp tattoo, helps raise her little girl whose father died during the war, and becomes invested in the space race.
Anyone who has watched a war movie in the last twenty years knows that civilian life is often harder on the soldier than war. The personal qualities that make Grandpa Chabon an excellent soldier—a love of solitude, easy justification of actions—make showing his love for his family and keeping a job difficult. His wife carries her own scars, intermittently losing her mind as she is chased by a skinless horse, a demon never far behind. Despite the difficulties of their relationship (at one point Grandma disappears), the pair remains steadfast in their love, true romantics underneath impenetrable exteriors.
The problem with nostalgia is that everything looks better in black and white, and, despite all the colorful language, that’s the picture Chabon paints. Grandpa has a firm sense of justice, yet we never see him agitate for better treatment of African-American soldiers. He abhors bureaucracy but says nothing about the blossoming Civil Rights movement. In Moonglow, the Greatest Generation’s psychic pain originates entirely from World War II instead of from what would make more logical sense—the too-slow realization that the justice fought for in Europe didn’t exist back home.
The book contains almost everything a certain subsection of Americans like to read about: war heroes, true love, street-fighting children, metafictional twists, and masculinity that is capable of brutal violence and tender love, as if these things can be boxed up and stored to be unwrapped at the appropriate time. Chabon is aware of this issue, which is why the memoir conceit comes into play. Oh, Chabon seems to say, you like autofiction? You like nonfiction? Well then, here you go.
The prose is as sweet as Tennessee whiskey poured over ice cubes of American idealism, all written by an extremely successful writer. Moonglow has a whole lot of shine but, unlike some of Chabon’s other works, is not terribly challenging. I didn’t leave the novel with a new perspective on war or life or love or memory. I can’t help but wonder if Chabon, after the tepid reception of his previous novel, Telegraph Avenue, decided to give his audience everything they wanted. However, I won’t deny that I devoured Moonglow with joy. From a sexual experience with a bearded woman living as a prostitute in a train car to the romantic lives of widows in Florida retirement communities, Chabon writes beautifully and creatively about any topic.