A faux memoir of the novelist’s grandfather, whose life as an engineer, veteran, and felon offers an entree into themes of heroism and imagination.
When “Michael Chabon,” the narrator of this novel, was growing up, his maternal grandparents were steeped in mystery and mythology. His grandmother was a tight-lipped Holocaust survivor with a fixation on tarot cards, while his grandfather was a World War II Army officer who’d also done time in prison. The novel is largely Chabon’s (Telegraph Avenue, 2012, etc.) effort to understand his grandfather’s wilder escapades. Why did he try to strangle a former business partner with a telephone cord? What was he thinking when he and a buddy in the Army Corps of Engineers prankishly set explosives on a bridge in Washington, D.C.? What did he feel while he hunted down Wernher von Braun in Germany? And, more tenderly, what did he see in the young girl he met in Baltimore after returning home from the war? A study in intellect, violence, and displacement, his grandfather is engaging on the ground level while also serving as a kind of metaphor for Cold War America. And Chabon writes tenderly about his grandparents’ relationship—his grandmother was a horror-flick host on local TV and suffered from mental illness her husband was ill-equipped to handle. Chabon’s theme is the storytelling (i.e., lies) people lean on to survive through complicated times: “The world, like the Tower of Babel or my grandmother’s deck of cards, was made out of stories, and it was always on the verge of collapse.” A noble enough theme, but Chabon is an inveterate overwriter who dilutes his best storytelling with more ponderous digressions—on the manufacture of the V-2 rocket, model-making, Thomas Pynchon, and the relationships his widowed grandfather pursued before his death. He’s captured a fine story about the poignancy of two souls’ survival but also too many others about plenty else besides.
A heartfelt but sodden family saga.