TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review of the new novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon. It's called "Moonglow," and it's loosely based on his grandfather's life. Chabon's other novels include "The Mysteries Of Pittsburgh," "Wonder Boys" and "The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier And Clay."
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: The deathbed scene. Literature provides no greater opportunity for melodrama, windy speeches and schmaltz than the moment when a character who's fading away fast decides to use precious last breaths to talk. The morbid Victorians in particular loved these set pieces. Dickens' Little Nell, Cathy in "Wuthering Heights," Helen Burns in "Jane Eyre" - all of them went a-gabbing (ph) into their good nights. But Michael Chabon, for all his expansive storytelling gifts, is no Victorian.
His latest novel, "Moonglow," may be structured around the sentimental situation of a dying grandfather telling the secrets of his life to his grandson, but these stories, dozens of them chopped and scrambled, are bawdy and moving, violent and very funny. It's as though the unnamed grandfather here is like Scheherazade, holding off death through an extended bout of yakking.
Michael Chabon has said that "Moonglow" was inspired by a week-long visit he paid to his own dying grandfather in Oakland, Calif. in 1989. Given that the unnamed narrator here is also a novelist and that this marathon deathbed scene takes place in Oakland, Calif., we readers are meant to understand that Chabon is tossing together autobiographical truth and the lies of fiction. Indeed, he tells us as much in a prefatory author's note that warns tongue-in-cheek that he's taken liberties with the truth with due abandon.
This is also one of those novels that features lists and footnotes. I have to tell you that as a reader, I have limited stamina for this kind of thing unless it's done really well, meaning the novelist remembers to entertain the reader as much as they're entertaining themselves. Chabon does it really well. Granted, some subplots seem self-indulgently baroque - did the teenage grandfather's first sexual encounter have to be with a bearded lady in a railroad yard? But Chabon's narrative energies never flag.
He had me on page one with his opening story of how his grandfather was arrested in 1957 for attempting to strangle his boss at the Feathercombs barrette company in New York City. Turns out the grandfather, a salesman, had just been fired in order to open up a position for Alger Hiss, who'd just been released from prison after serving time for perjuring himself about his involvement with a Soviet spy ring. Barrettes and Alger Hiss - you can't make this stuff up, right? Or maybe only a writer like Chabon can. What ensues - and this is a highly pruned plot summary - is a grand story that hops around from the grandfather's juvenile delinquent childhood in Philadelphia to his service in World War II, working in an Army intelligence unit that was hunting down rocket scientist Wernher von Braun in Germany.
This life review also includes the grandfather's marriage to a Holocaust survivor, a woman prodded into insanity by nightmare visions of a skinless horse, to his final days hunting down a pet-eating python in his Florida retirement community. These and a multitude of other subplots command attention because they're so highly textured and because Chabon's language is so voluminous and vivid. At the center of this whirlwind of a novel, there's a long, still passage where the narrator and his dying grandfather talk about the point of it all, of life. Here's a snippet of that powerful conversation, beginning with the grandfather's words.
(Reading) You try to take advantage of the time you have. That's what they tell you to do. But when you're old, you look back and you see all you did with all that time is wasted. All you have is a story of things you never started or couldn't finish. I'm ashamed of myself. I'm not ashamed of you, I said. I'm proud. My grandfather made another one of his faces. This face said that what I knew about shame, what my entire generation, with its deployment of confession as a tool for self-aggrandizement, knew about shame would fit into half a pistachio shell.
Yeah, this is why you read Michael Chabon - for the self-deprecation and insight and brio all packed tight into sentences, fantastic stories and wild novels that you may think are a world away from where you live but always turn out to hit home.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed Michael Chabon's new novel, "Moonglow." Tomorrow, we celebrate Thanksgiving by listening back to interviews with two American music icons, Johnny Cash and Ray Charles. I hope you'll join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, John Sheehan, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden and Mooj Zadie. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.