On balance, most of the time, in the ordinary course of life, it was probably best to say what was in your heart, to share what was on your mind, to tell the people you loved that you loved them, to ask those you had harmed to forgive you and to confront those who had hurt you with the truth about the damage they had done. When it came to things that needed to be said, speech was always preferable to silence, but it was of no use at all in the presence of the unspeakable.Michael Chabon spent the last week of his grandfather's life sitting with him and listening to him tell, for the first time, his entire life story. Moonglow is the novelization of that life, but it retains the frame of the deathbed confession. Chabon brings his flair for storytelling but grounds the book in his grandfather's real life and experiences (the first line is: "This is how I heard the story"). We follow Chabon's grandfather through decades of marriage, multiple careers (many of which fail impressively), WWII occupied France, and a crusade to capture the alligator terrorizing the cats in his retirement community.
This felt much like all of Chabon's other novels: it's funny and sarcastic, filled with creative characters who all seem like they're just about to catch their break (but rarely do), and just enough of the touch of the absurd to make you raise an eyebrow. Moonglow has the added layer of strange intimacy that comes with chronicling the life of a loved one who you are getting to know along with your reader. Chabon refers to his grandfather only as "my grandfather," a phrasing that can feel awkward, especially in the chapters that deal with his earlier life, but it also adds to that same sense of intimacy and makes the whole novel feel like you're listening to Chabon speak it aloud.
The most haunting presence in the book is Chabon's grandmother, a French Jewish refugee who arrived in America at the tail end of the war with a daughter in tow. Her troubled but loving marriage to Chabon's grandfather and her slow unraveling are eerily portrayed, and the truth about her identity is artfully unveiled throughout the book.
Chabon does tiny details well, and he uses them throughout to give emotional depth to a man who has come off (at least to his grandchild) as stoic and silent for most of his life. My favorite comes from a model of a moon station he has built from discarded plastic bits and assorted model railroad sets--late in life Chabon's grandfather designed and built scaled models for NASA. A spray-painted coffee lid's hatch lifts to reveal a tiny family hidden below: figures representing Chabon's grandfather, grandmother, and mother. Even long after the death of his wife, he quietly and discreetly weaves her into the fabric of his life.
I often enjoy Chabon's work because it takes place in places I know and love (I especially loved Telegraph Avenue for its portrayal of the massive range of humanity living along a few miles stretched between Berkeley and Oakland). Place played a much smaller role in this novel, but the characters shined through and were more likable than I'm used to from him.