This was my first novel by Michael Chabon and it is a great read.
At 430 pages this is a long deathbed confession to the author from a character known only as “my grandfather” throughout the book. He is certainly a man with a sense of humour and I found him extremely likeable. Grandfather had led a life of adventures. During World War II, as the US Army rattled through Europe, he was on a mission to capture Wernher von Braun and secure his services for the USA. Credited as the inventor of the wartime V2 rocket, von Braun went on to become the driving force behind the US space race. Google him and you will see a picture of him at his desk with a whole shelf of model rockets behind him. In this story, Grandfather is credited with building many accurate and detailed models of space rockets, often for NASA. It is hard not to link the image to the story once you have seen it.
It turns out this old fellow has had a diverse and fascinating life. We trace it through many meandering and some wonderful vignettes. As well as following grandfather’s exploits in the Second World War, we see him dealing with his wife’s insanity, his daughter and his fascination with any aspect of space travel. It is rather like reading six or seven books instead of just one. Grandfather spends time in prison, attacks his boss for firing him and eventually ends up in a Florida retirement village where he prepares to take on a large snake. There is so much humour and realism in this book, that it is hard not to love.
Experiencing a writer for the first time, it is sometimes hard to know what you are going to find. What are the author’s themes or preoccupations? Some of these can turn up numerous times across multiple works.
Michael Chabon is a 53 year old American Jew. I mention that he is Jewish because that is an important element of his writing and his sense of humour. It is a particular humour, like the English writer Howard Jacobson (“The Finkler Question” and “Zoo Time”) or Woody Allen. It is a sense of humour that can poke fun at Jewish ideas and rituals.
Chabon won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001 (for “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay”), but until I stumbled on this novel I had never heard of him before. I’m glad I did, because it is very good.
Moonglow is so full of themes and ideas, that describing it is difficult. Chabon has tried to portray his own family and has done enough to make you wonder how much truth there is in what is cast as a series of deathbed confessions by his grandfather. There is a quote from Werner von Braun at the beginning and a picture of an advert for Chabon Scientific rockets, supposedly from a 1958 page of Esquire magazine. By having real life characters and events throughout his book, we are subtly led to believe much of it is true. At least as true as an unreliable and heavily medicated narrator can make it.
It is a chronicle of friends, family, lovers, business partners and adversaries. All told with a wonderful lifelike realism – believable and bizarre. It is a book to savour and laugh at.