Michael Chabon just gets better and better as a writer. While I can't claim to have read everything that he's written, each book of his that I have read has been better than the last. Moonglow is the best one yet and it's hard to see how he can improve with the next one.
This book takes the form of a family memoir and it seems to have been at least loosely based on Chabon's own family, although he assures us that it is, in fact, entirely fictional. But the third person narrator of the book is named Mike Chabon and the stories that he tells us were told to him by his grandfather as he lay dying.
In 1989, Mike traveled to his mother's house in Oakland to be with his terminally ill grandfather. Over ten days at the very end of his life, the grandfather told his grandson stories of his eventful life. This was a unique experience in a family known for its silences. Mike said that 90% of what he knew about his grandfather was learned in those ten days.
The grandfather's story begins before World War II when, as a Drexel Tech graduate, he joined the Army Corps of Engineers. He relates his wartime experiences chasing rocket technology and Wernher von Braun; his experience with the liberation of a concentration camp and the rescue of slave laborers; and after the war, his attempt to find meaning in all of those experiences and to search for a purpose in his life.
His purpose might have been found when he met and fell in love with a beautiful woman, herself a victim of the war and the mother of a small daughter. The woman's own experiences had left her wracked by mental illness and, throughout their life together, she and Mike's grandfather struggled in fits and starts for stability and mental equilibrium for her.
The grandfather's tale is a story of financial success and disaster, of companies founded and lost, of violence and the consequences of violence. At one point, the grandfather had spent fourteen months in prison because he had tried to garrote his boss who had just fired him. But through it all, he was always a man who could fix things and it was his joy as an engineer to find solutions to problems. That was one of the things that first drew him to the woman who was to become his wife.
From the first that was part of his attraction to her: not her brokenness but her potential for being mended, and, even more, the challenge that mending her would pose.After the grandfather's death, Mike's mother asks him if he thinks her parents were happy in spite of all the problems and challenges they faced - the failures and the repeated mental health breakdowns, the disillusionment with men thought to be heroes who were found to have feet of clay, and all the silences and lies that had failed to acknowledge the truth of their family's lives. Mike replied that he thought they were happy.
She asks him when he thinks they were happy. "In the cracks," he replies.
That answer washed over me like a tidal wave of enlightenment, for aren't we all happy "in the cracks"? The cracks that exist between the failures and disappointments of our lives. Happiness is never a constant thing. We are always beset by sadnesses and setbacks, but thank goodness for those "cracks" that always come to give us hope that things can be better.
Michael Chabon makes me laugh sometimes with his writing, but he also makes me cry, and I felt tears on my cheeks as this book ended. It was the poignancy of the story, but also the shock of recognition that this family's story made me feel about my own family. And, too, I was just sad to see this marvelous book end.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars