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‘Moonglow’ a faux memoir from Chabon

November 25, 2016

Storytelling matters desperately to Michael Chabon’s characters.

It’s a way to remake an unhappy reality and exert control (“Werewolves in Their Youth”), a means of grappling with personal or historical disaster (“The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” which received the Pulitzer Prize in 2001), or, in the case of his elegiac and deeply poignant new novel, “Moonglow,” a tool for connecting the dots of a family’s life and making sense of the past.

“Moonglow” takes the form of a faux memoir by the narrator, Mike, a writer who bears more than a passing resemblance to the author himself.

The story centers on tales told by his maternal grandfather as he lies dying of cancer, high on painkillers that have cracked his habit of silence and made him eager to spill “a record of his misadventures, his ambiguous luck, his feats and failures of timing and nerve.”

His grandfather’s disjointed accounts of being a soldier in World War II and his fascination with rocketry and space travel have a hallucinatory, drug-addled sheen, and they are tangled up with his wife’s enigmatic and contradictory retellings of her experiences in occupied France.

Chabon weaves these knotted tales together into a tapestry that’s as complicated, beautiful and flawed as an antique carpet.

The novel would have benefited from some rigorous editing — there are digressions about business travails, V-2 rockets and “Gravity’s Rainbow” that are tedious and superfluous.

But the fraying story lines seem to be a deliberate narrative strategy meant to convey the chaos of life and distortions of memory, and the bright threads of meaning that can be extracted, with imagination and will, from the mess.

Chabon is one of contemporary literature’s most gifted prose stylists, and in novels like “Telegraph Avenue” and “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union,” he’s demonstrated his Jedi-like mastery, his ability to move effortlessly between the serious and the comic, the existential and merely personal.

In “Moonglow,” he writes with both lovely lyricism and highly caffeinated fervor. He conjures Mike’s childhood with Proustian ardor, capturing his fond memories of his mother (who smelled of Prell shampoo, making him think of those old TV commercials showing a pearl languidly drifting through the mentholated green) and his worst boyhood fears (convinced that a gaggle of evil-looking puppets were lying in wait, plotting to kill him).

There are sharp, funny portraits of the many eccentric characters who wander through the lives of the narrator’s family, but it’s Mike’s grandfather who bestrides the novel — an Augie March-like hero who careens through life like a wildly thrown bowling ball.

He goes at things freestyle, and often seems like the very embodiment, in Chabon’s mind, of America itself — proud, romantic, naive, impulsive. He’s a roughneck and a dreamer, a pool hustler and a soldier, a jailbird and an engineer enraptured by the space race and the moon shot.

His grandfather’s romance with the woman who becomes his wife — a French refugee who has a young daughter (who will grow up to become Mike’s mother) — is a love story about two people who build new lives together after the war but who can never really manage to swim free from the undertow of the horror they witnessed in war-torn Europe.

Although “Moonglow” grows overly discursive at times, it is never less than compelling when it sticks to the tale of Mike’s grandparents — these damaged survivors of World War II who bequeath to their family a legacy of endurance, and an understanding of the magic powers of storytelling to provide both solace and transcendence.