In Michael Chabon’s last major novel, Telegraph Avenue, published in 2012 and set eight years earlier, one of the book’s characters encounters, at a political fundraiser, a figure who is at that time of still greater significance to the reader than to her – one Barack Obama. First spied grooving along to the hired band, ‘tapping his foot, bobbing his close-cropped head’ and remarking that ‘those guys are pretty funky’, the future president, then merely a state senator, cameos in a single scene, dispensing advice that goes on to help the heroine’s marriage. Observing her dreamy, erratic guitarist husband, Obama delivers the following soliloquy: ‘traveling around, campaigning, at home, around the country, I have seen a lot of people, met a lot of people. The lucky ones are the people like your husband there. The ones who find work that means something to them. That they can really put their heart into, however foolish it might look to other people.’ A lifelong Democrat, Chabon provides a sympathetic portrait of ‘the rising star from Illinois’, one that just succeeds in ducking hagiography. At the time of its release, this wry interaction was a well-meaning boost for a leader mired in domestic unpopularity and governmental gridlock. Today, now that the ultimate American vulgarian has ascended to high office, trailed by clouds of crypto-fascists, the vignette reads as a bitterly ironic portrait of a politician whose work is set to be undone.
Moonglow, Chabon’s new book, seems similarly naive about the future. A portrait of an unnamed old man who is dying of bone cancer, it seeks to provide a depiction of a lost America, from the 1930s to the turn of the century. In doing so, it comes across as altogether