Michael Chabon’s wonderful “Moonglow” is a fictionalized memoir of his family history, based on Chabon’s maternal grandfather’s story, portions of which his grandfather shares at the end of his life. We first meet Chabon’s grandfather in 1957, as he is attempting to strangle the president of the company he works for with the frayed end of a telephone cord. As you might expect, that activity lands him in jail for some time. Of course there is a before attempted murder and an after.
In 1941 (before the ineffective strangulation attempt) after obtaining an engineering degree and specializing in hustling pool, grandfather enlisted in the Army Corps of Engineers, where “His frugality with words got interpreted variously but to his advantage as manliness, self-possession, imperviousness.” He enlisted one day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and shortly after his enlistment he is sent to officer candidate school in Virginia.
Due to the proximity of Washington DC, and his apparent restlessness, grandfather writes up a plan to take over Washington DC and begins, with the assistance of his roommate, to plot the bombing of the Francis Scott Key Bridge. That activity gets him promoted to the Office of Strategic Services, where he is sent to Germany and spends much of the war unsuccessfully hunting Wernher Von Braun, the inventor of the V-2 rocket for Nazi Germany. Von Braun crops up throughout the book. The novel includes chilling descriptions of the Nazi war machine manufacturing facilities.
Grandfather’s brother, Ray, is an unlikely Rabbi and when grandfather returns to the US after the war, he moves in with Ray. Grandfather accompanies Ray to Ray’s synagogue’s Monte Carlo night and meets Chabon’s grandmother (who was supposed to meet and fall in love with Ray). Grandmother grew up in a convent after the rest of her family was sent to and died at Auschwitz. She ultimately became a displaced person and came to America. Grandfather immediately fell in love with her, despite her deep seated emotional issues. “She was always threatening rain; he had been born with an umbrella in his hand.”
Grandmother is in and out of mental institutions and Chabon’s mother at some point is sent to live with Uncle Ray, well after Ray has given up the ill suited rabbi thing. Grandfather goes through a variety of jobs and vocations and somehow is always able to keep things together.
There is a lot going on in this book, all of it fascinating and brilliantly described. The novel moves back and forth through time seamlessly. Chabon is a master writer, his descriptions of time, place and feeling are vivid. When grandmother goes missing on Halloween 1952, grandfather goes searching for her and describes the scene as follows: “A dreamlike river of children coursing in and out of shadow, pooling on stoops, and out there somewhere a woman with a crack in her brain that was letting in shadows and leaking dreams.” A description like no other.
This novel is a gem. Read it! You can reserve this book at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on http://encore.cuyahoga.lib.oh.us/iii/encore/record/C__Rb11222971__Smoonglow__P0%2C4__Orightresult__X7?lang=eng&suite=gold