Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Moonglow by Michael Chabon

Source of book: Audiobook from the library


I can’t even remember precisely how this book got on my list - I have some going back 11 years, many recommended by writers I like, or by NPR or LitHub. Anyway, it was on the list, had an audiobook that I didn’t have to wait for, and sounded at least interesting. I used it during commutes and house calls the last month or so. 

 I’m not even sure what to call the genre of this book. It is officially fiction (and it is certainly at least somewhat fictional), but it contains a certain amount of true story. Only, nobody but the author seems to know what is and is not made up. 


The basic idea is that Chabon spent the last weeks of his grandfather’s life listening to his life story. Grandpa was usually reticent and private, but the painkillers loosened his tongue, and he told quite the tale to his grandson the writer. That much, I believe, is actually true. The story that Chabon put in the book, however, is, by his own admission, partly true, and partly, well, embellished. Just how much? I have no idea. 


I am reminded of a particular short story I read as a kid - it was part of my Collier’s Young Folks Shelf of Books, which I devoured at a certain age, and have shared with my kids since. The story was called “Embellishment,” by Jacob Abbott. And apparently it is in the public domain and online, so you can read it if you like. Here is, perhaps, the key quote:


“Shall I tell the story to you just as it was,” asked Beechnut, “as a sober matter of fact, or shall I embellish it a little?”

“I don’t know what you mean by embellishing it,” said Madeline.

“Why, not telling exactly what is true,” said Beechnut, “but inventing something to add to it, to make it interesting.”

“I want to have it true,” said Madeline, “and interesting, too.”

“But sometimes,” replied Beechnut, “interesting things don’t happen, and in such cases, if we should only relate what actually does happen, the story would be likely to be dull.”

“I think you had better embellish the story a little,” said Phonny—”just a little, you know.”

“I don’t think I can do that very well,” replied Beechnut. “If I attempt to relate the actual facts, I depend simply on my memory, and I can confine myself to what my memory teaches; but if I undertake to follow my invention, I must go wherever it leads me.”


As in the story, this book presumably follows the basic life facts of Chabon’s grandfather, who served in World War Two, came back and married a Belgian war refugee and adopted her daughter, who was Chabon’s mother. One might even presume that said grandfather (who isn’t named in the book, interestingly) was indeed part of the secret corps trying to find scientists and information on rocketry as Europe was liberated. 


From there on, I have no idea what is fact and what is fiction. 


The story, in any event, is actually a lot of fun. I was drawn into it pretty immediately, and enjoyed the ride all the way to the end. The characters are well drawn and memorable. Grandpa is crusty and often non-communicative, and when he does talk, he is cynical and cantankerous. Grandma suffers from complex mental illness, probably exacerbated by the trauma of the war, but also by a hormonal imbalance and the stress of keeping her former life a secret. (Near the end of the book, we get a hint of what actually happened to her before and during the war, from notes from her psychiatrist.) The two of them form a bonded pair, both damaged, both with their own issues, but nevertheless devoted to each other. 


The story itself is told in a decidedly non-linear manner, which actually makes a lot of sense in this book, because Grandpa tells a rambling story that jumps around a lot. So, it starts out with the time he tried to strangle his boss, after being laid off so the company could hire Alger Hiss, but then it goes to that time he and an army buddy showed they could blow up a bridge (using an explosive that made noise and smoke but wouldn’t do actual damage), which is how he ended up on the secret corps. And then, the story is about how he met his wife, then chasing down a snake in Florida near the end of his life, then his travels in Europe looking for Werner von Braun, then about Uncle Rey and…well, there is a LOT in this book. I can’t even begin to summarize this sprawling narrative. 


But despite all the messiness, the craziness, and the requirement of a certain amount of suspension of disbelief, the story is fun and compelling. 


Grandpa is fascinated by rockets and the moon, which is where the title comes from. Unable to go himself, he builds model rockets for hobbyists, but also for NASA. An item that becomes a focal point of the story ends up being a model moon base that he builds out of pieces from model cars and aircraft, and whatever else he can find - including the lid to a coffee cup. Like the model, the book itself is lovingly crafted from a hodgepodge of elements and incidents and ideas. 


In addition to “Embellishment,” I was also reminded a bit of Deacon King Kong, at least in the way that violence and even homicide are mentioned with a flippant and humorous attitude. The books are quite different in other ways, but the whole “and then the prison bully got blown up” thing had a similar vibe. Likewise, the sex is generally played for laughs rather than pathos, which some reviewers seem to dislike. I personally was okay with the irreverent and breezy style. Nobody is going to think this book is telling you it is okay to strangle your boss, or plant explosives that just happen to go off in the next prison cell. Despite its plausible underpinnings, this is neither a serious story nor intended to be particularly realistic. It’s…embellishment. 


For that matter, even when the story veered into implausibility and silliness, the characters made up for any plot flaws. They seem real and sympathetic, like people you know or at least have met.  


Since I was driving, mostly around town, I was unable to remember any specific quotes, but I will note that there are a lot of great lines throughout, both humorous and pointed. 


The audiobook was narrated by George Newbern, who I really liked. He did the various accents - including regional Jewish accents - quite well, and it was never difficult to tell the characters apart, even during the rapid-fire exchanges between Chabon and Grandpa. I’ll also give credit to Blackstone Publishing for doing a better than average job on the compression. The book was at the same basic volume throughout, and thus easy to listen to while driving. 


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