When I graduated from college in 1988 I imagined one day I’d be a successful novelist. I was an avid reader of literary fiction, devouring the novels of great American writers like John Updike, Phillip Roth and Tom Wolfe. Around the same time I stumbled upon a novel by an unknown author named Michael Chabon who had just published what I later learned was his master’s thesis work from UC-Irvine. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh was a coming of age novel and I was coming of age. It hit me like a ton of bricks — how could a 25 year old kid from UC-Irvine of all places write such a masterful work of modern fiction. I was inspired enough to look into MFA programs and even applied to Chapman College in Orange County. If Chabon could do it even though he wasn’t some East Coast literary snob why couldn’t I? By the way, I later learned UC-Irvine has an exceptional MFA program that only admitted 13 fiction students each year.
I ended up taking some graduate-level English classes at San Jose State, after all it was in my backyard and it too produced a tremendous literary talent in Amy Tan. But ultimately I wasn’t ready for graduate school (I ended up earning an MA in English many years later from Northern Arizona University) and went to work as a technical editor instead. And while my literary dreams never fully went away, I still haven’t written a novel. I think part of the reason is because I know in my heart I could never be as good as Michael Chabon, who went on to write some of the best American novels ever including one of my all-time favorite novels, Wonder Boys, as well as The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay for which he won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. As an aside, Wonder Boys is one of the few novels I can think of in which the movie version is almost as good as the book (Robert Downey, Jr., Michael Douglas and Frances McDormand are great, not to mention Tobey Maguire and Katie Holmes in supporting roles).
Flash forward to today and Chabon’s latest novel, Moonglow, is one of the best-selling books of the year. I just finished it, and it is undoubtedly his best work since the mid-90s. Moonglow is a unique work of “fiction” in that the lines between fact and fiction are blurred. Chabon has stated the novel is based on the true experiences of his grandfather, but he took many liberties to shape the story. Either way, it’s a beautiful tribute to his family’s legacy. The narrator of Moonglow is a writer named Michael Chabon, who over the course of the book tells the story of his grandfather’s life as he sits on his deathbed relaying his complicated past to his grandson Mike for the first time. I don’t want to spoil the story for you, but suffice it to say Chabon’s grandfather was a remarkable man who married a complex woman. Like a lot of Chabon’s work, the story touches on Jewish identity, World War II, the Holocaust, and family dynamics. It also bounces back and forth between the the early days of his grandfather’s life and the later days, providing a complete picture of the man over the course of a lifetime. The fact that the reader really has no way of knowing which parts of the story are fact and which are embellishments only adds to the intrigue. And as always, Chabon’s writing is brilliant. His style is modern and the story has just enough detail to give the reader a sense of being in the moment, whether that is behind enemy lines in Germany during World War II or in an active adult community in Florida.
Moonglow is quite a tribute to Chabon’s grandfather. It makes me sad that I didn’t ask my grandparents more about their lives before they died. I know very little about my paternal grandfather (who died when I was very young) other than the fact that he owned shoe stores in Brooklyn. My maternal grandfather died suddenly around the time I graduated from college, and I only know a little about his life — he served in the Navy Reserves during World War II and when he married my grandmother he was cut off by his Orthodox Jewish family because my grandmother wasn’t Jewish enough. I imagine there was quite a story there, but I didn’t think to ask. I think that’s one of the reasons Moonglow is so touching. While Chabon’s grandfather was slowly dying from cancer he spent time with him and heard his stories. It’s a wonderful legacy for his grandfather and his entire family as the stories are now available for people to read for all time. In a way, Moonglow immortalizes his grandfather and that is a tremendous gift to his grandfather, his family, and the book’s readers.
As for my own literary dreams, there’s always hope. Toni Morrison wrote her first novel at 39. Raymond Chandler didn’t publish his first story until he was 45. Frank McCourt wasn’t published until he was 64! I don’t know if I have a novel in me, but if I write one that’s even half as good as anything Michael Chabon has ever written it’ll be a personal triumph.