Michael Chabon at home in 2016 (Photo/Cathleen Maclearie)
Michael Chabon at home in 2016 (Photo/Cathleen Maclearie)

Magical family narrative drives Michael Chabons latest novel, Moonglow

On his deathbed, Michael Chabon’s grandfather recalls a colorful life: his troubled boyhood in the Jewish slums of prewar South Philadelphia, his prowess in pool halls up and down the Eastern seaboard that helped him pay for college, and his week in prison for almost killing his boss (which he tried, unsuccessfully, to hide from his emotionally fragile wife, a Holocaust survivor).

Whether any of that is even 50 percent factual — or perhaps wholly imagined — it is all recounted by a narrator-character named “Michael Chabon” in the new novel “Moonglow” arguably the real-life Chabon’s most Jewish book since “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” in 2007.

Available in hardcover, Kindle and other formats as of mid-November, the “novel that pretends to be a memoir” (as the Pulitzer Prize-winning Berkeley writer put it in an interview with J.) has been selected by the Jewish Community Library as its One Bay One Book for 2016-17. That means more than 1,000 Jews in the Bay Area will be reading the book, with many of them talking about it and attending programs that delve deeply into its content, themes and truths.

“This book is so well written, and Chabon is one of the greatest writers working today,” said Howard Freedman, library director, in explaining the decision to choose “Moonglow” for this year’s community read.

“The occasion that sets the book into motion — a grandson being told his grandfather’s stories,” is a profoundly Jewish ritual, Freedman added. “Jews are deeply formed by the stories we tell — and those we don’t tell … When we are separated from our stories, we create a disruption in our identities.”

The genesis of the book can be traced back to 1989, when Chabon, then in his mid-20s, visited his mother’s home in Oakland to spend time with his terminally ill grandfather. It was shortly after the publication of his breakthrough first novel, “The Mysteries Of Pittsburgh” which he completed as a graduate student in the MFA program in writing at U.C. Irvine.

“Tongue loosened by powerful painkillers, memory stirred by the imminence of death, Chabon’s grandfather shared recollections and told stories the younger man had never heard before, uncovering bits and pieces of a history long buried and forgotten,” reads the promotional text for “Moonglow.”

The book is presented as a memoir in which a young man named Michael Chabon relates the deathbed confessions and stories of a man referred to only as “my grandfather.”

“Michael Chabon spins a magical family narrative that is as grand and mysterious as the literary form in which he presents it,” writes Poets & Writers magazine in a feature on Chabon and his book in its current issue.

“Whatever the literal veracity of its content,” the Poets & Writers piece points out, “ ‘Moonglow’ continues, more than most of Chabon’s novels, his career-long exploration of his greatest theme, Jewish identity [and] his continuing fascination with, and fictional exploration of, the Jewish American experience.”

Chabon admittedly plays fast and loose with fact and fiction in his latest book, intermingling his own family’s history and mythology with pivotal events of the 20th century. The narrator shares the tales of his grandfather’s exploits and recounts, in vivid detail, scenes from his grandparents’ complicated marriage.

“I’ve always been curious about my family’s past and [history and memories] that are on the verge of passing away,” said Chabon, 53, who lives with his wife, fellow novelist Ayelet Waldman, in Berkeley, where they have raised their four children: Sophie, 22, Zeke, 19, Rosie, 15, and Abe, 13.

But what really happened — and what didn’t — in this conflation of family lore, imagination and American history?

“It’s the game of the book: truth and invention,” Chabon said, quickly adding that the grandfather on the pages was not his grandfather in real life.

He did acknowledge, however, that a major catalyst for the tales in the book was one of his mother’s uncles, Stanley Werbow, a professor of medieval German at the University of Texas, who was “a sharp guy with a biting sense of humor.” Werbow died in 2005, but he and Chabon had a chance to chat extensively. “We talked about all kinds of things,” said Chabon, who gleaned a wealth of family information and stories from his older relative.

Chabon told Poets & Writers that “what got me started on this novel about three years ago was a story I’d heard about my uncle, not my grandfather; about having been let go from a job to make room for Alger Hiss.”

The opening pages of “Moonglow” include such a story, but it’s the narrator’s grandfather who loses a job to Hiss, an accused Soviet spy convicted of perjury.

Speaking with J., Chabon said his “books arrive mysteriously for me.”

The ideas of home and homeland are wrapped up in his identity as a writer and a Jew, he said. “The home is the locus for religious observance. Shabbat as a religious ceremony is practiced in your home.”

Because his parents divorced when he was a child, Chabon said, the metaphor of home takes on greater poignancy for him. “Having grown up in a broken family,” he said, “the sense of a lost home is very personal to me.”

His parents came from very disparate Jewish backgrounds. “My father’s family was anti-religious and non-observant,” he said. “They were Norman Thomas Socialists,” he added, referring to the six-time Socialist presidential candidate. “My father did not have a bar mitzvah. My mother’s relatives were Conservative Jews, and she was left in charge of the religious question” in terms of the upbringing of Chabon and his older brother.

Growing up primarily in the planned community of Columbia, Maryland, about 20 miles from Baltimore, Chabon received a Jewish education and had a bar mitzvah at a synagogue he described as being “at the progressive edges of the Jewish Renewal movement.”

In a 2013 interview in the Jerusalem Post, Chabon said he grew up “hearing Yiddish [from] a lot from older relatives, great-aunts …  as a way for us [kids] not to understand what was being said. Especially if they were saying something sexual or racist, something they didn’t want us to hear. But it was also for funny stories and jokes.” And his great-aunt read the Yiddish Forward, he added.

He also attended Hebrew school, and in an interview earlier this year with the Forward, he talked about “the little blue boxes I put my pocket change in … every week … the Jewish National Fund.”

After falling away from religious practice for a number of years as a young adult, Chabon said he made “a deliberate attempt to connect to some form of religion … to see what I might have been missing.” For many years, he, Waldman and their children were members of Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont.

“It was a fascinating process for me,” he said. “I got very involved in synagogue life for awhile,” spending a decade on the board.

However, Chabon added, he became increasingly uncomfortable with religious texts, Jewish and otherwise. “I came to feel that the fundamentalists’ interpretation of text [was accurate],” he said. “These texts mean what they say.”

He cited, for example, the passage of Leviticus that imposes the death penalty on men who engage in gay sex. In addition to being homophobic, he said, the Bible is “patriarchal and misogynistic,” and contemporary liberal attempts to “soften the language” are tantamount to “enabling a relationship with an abusive spouse.”

Not one to shy away from controversy, Chabon, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his 2000 book “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” raised more than a few hackles six years ago when he decried what he viewed as his co-religionists’ prevailing attitude of Jewish exceptionalism.

In a 2010 New York Times op-ed piece titled “Chosen, Not Special,” which he wrote in the aftermath of the Gaza flotilla incident, Chabon wrote that this disastrous event should disabuse Jews of the myth that they “were on the whole smarter, cleverer, more brilliant, more astute than other people.” Nine anti-Israel protesters died when the Israeli military raided the Mavi Marmara, a ship in a flotilla headed to the Gaza Strip ostensibly to provide relief materials to blockaded Palestinians.

Expanding on his view of Jewish exceptionalism, Chabon told J., “It’s a two-edged sword … We like it when the rest of the world thinks we’re smarter.” But, he added, this view also gets Jews into trouble, because others can take hold of it and make it the “basis of pogroms, the Holocaust.”

Asked whether Jews are exceptional in any ways other than in particular languages, texts, religious and cultural practices and historic circumstances, Chabon replied with two questions of his own: “Isn’t that enough? What’s so great about being unique?”

The writer will certainly raise more eyebrows next year, when his essay about his trip to Hebron earlier this year — he has already very publicly called what he observed in the West Bank as “injustices” and “the worst thing I have ever seen” — will be included in a book that he and the Israeli-born Waldman are editing. With contributions from writers such as Mario Vargas Llosa, Dave Eggers, Rachel Kushner and Geraldine Brooks, the book is being compiled to mark 50 years of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.

Chabon, who had visited Israel once before this year, said his experiences on his most recent trip reinforced his opposition to that occupation. “It is a massive crime against humanity on a scale I had not imagined,” he said. “Anyone who saw what I saw would conclude that it’s a humanitarian disaster …  As a Jew, I find it intolerable.”

Despite that, “My cultural attachment to Judaism is stronger than ever,” he said. “I’m prouder than ever to be an American Jew.”

Chabon pointed out that all of his novels have featured Jewish characters, such as Nat Jaffe, one of the proprietors of Brokeland Records in his last book, “Telegraph Avenue: A Novel” in 2012. And then there was “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union,” which involves a cast of characters in an imaginary postwar Jewish homeland in Sitka, Alaska.

In “Moonglow,” the way in which historical facts are recounted alongside the stories and reflections from three generations of a Jewish family — and the way that family, particularly the grandmother, broken by her experience of growing up in war-torn France, entombs the Holocaust — creates a feeling that the novel is indeed an autobiographical family history. Certain parts probably are.

As to which parts are real and which aren’t, well, that’s where the One Bay One Book discussion groups will come in handy.

“Moonglow” by Michael Chabon (448 pages, Harper)

Robert Nagler Miller
Robert Nagler Miller

Robert Nagler Miller, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Wesleyan University, received his master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. For more than 25 years, he worked as a writer and editor at a variety of nonprofits in the Los Angeles and Bay Areas. In 2016, he and his husband, Dr. Arnold Friedlander, relocated to Chicago. Robert loves schmoozing, noshing, kvetching, Scrabble, reading and NPR.