Book Review: Moonglow: A Novel

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon is back with a shimmering mirage disguised as a personal history. Moonglow, Chabon's fourteenth novel, was inspired by the week he spent at his dying grandfather's bedside, listening to his life story.

Rather than report his own family’s stories, Chabon creates a richly populated and intricately detailed life for a dying fictional grandfather as documented by a fictional author/grandson, an avatar for Chabon, who bears his name and shares an unknown number of details with the real author.

Chabon is at his finest in the world of speculative fiction and the creation of parallel American universes. His well-earned Pulitzer for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is the best example of this, a story spanning the decades just before and after World War II through the window of superhero comics. Another excellent example is The Yiddish Policemen's Union, a novel set in a Jewish colony in Sitka, AK, a real-life city once briefly considered a Zionist outpost.

Chabon continues his tradition of interweaving history and fiction in his newest work. The never-named maternal grandfather of the purported author of Moonglow becomes a focal point for the churning currents of history. After a childhood in the slums of South Philadelphia, his high-level mission to capture Nazi rockets leads to a lifelong interest in and obsession with space and later, an encounter with the real-life Nazi scientist Wernher von Braun; his wife's fragile mental health puts her at the forefront of therapeutic advances; and a prison sentence leads to the experimental Wallkill facility.

The grandfather is portrayed as intelligent, impulsive, and physically brutish. He is overshadowed by his smarmy rabbi brother, yet capable of winning the heart of his gorgeous and mentally unstable wife, who hallucinates a skinless horse and regularly sets fire to a tree in their yard. They are seen both through the eyes of the grandson, who feels alternating love and terror as a child for his unpredictable grandmother, and through the author's mother, whose childhood and adolescence are deeply affected by her unstable upbringing.

Judaism, at its most devout and most assimilated, is at the heart of Moonglow, as it is for so many of Chabon's works. The importance of simply being Jewish, of sharing in the historical trauma of the Holocaust, resonates with all of the characters, although more traditionally religious characters, such as the pool-shark rabbi, fare poorly. One of the book's most poignant moments is when the grandfather describes to his grandson the process of saying Kaddish for the proscribed year following his wife's death:

"If your wife, your brother, or God forbid, your child dies, it leaves a big hole in your life. It's much better not to pretend there's no hole. Not to try to, what do they say nowadays, get over it ... when it's time for the Kaddish. You stand up in front of everybody, and you point to the hole, and you say, 'Look at this. This is what I'm living with, this hole.' Eleven months, every week. It doesn't go away, you don't put it behind you."

Had Chabon simply told the story of an interesting, flawed man, dayenu, it would have been enough to make a compelling novel worthy of an American master. But the real treat for avid Chabon fans are aspects from the purported author's life sprinkled throughout the book that link directly to those found in earlier works, particularly Kavalier & Clay. A dish of scrambled eggs and salami is enjoyed by the Chabon character and prepared by the titular Clay. Chabon's grandmother in Moonglow and Rosa Saks in Kavalier & Clay each appear in their first entrance as visions of free-spirited glamor, but drab and withdrawn in their second. A luna moth appears pinned to a corkboard in Moonglow and alive on a tree in Kavalier & Clay. Each detail shared between the two books serves a dual purpose: first, to make credible that we are being given a window into the childhood of the author of Kavalier & Clay, and, second, as a signifier that we are still within a world created by that author.

While the layers of credible unreality in Moonglow are a contrivance, for returning readers of Chabon's work, the dawning realization as layers are pulled back is delicious, an in-joke for his loyalists. New readers will likely be drawn to his back canon and share in the pleasure of inhabiting the interlinked worlds created over Chabon's nearly three prolifically creative decades.

Courtney Naliboff lives, writes, teaches, and parents on North Haven, an island off the coast of Maine. She is a columnist for Working Waterfront, and writes about rural Jewish parenting for