For Murray Dubin, the email came out of the blue.
It was from the author events coordinator at the Free Library of Philadelphia, and it was asking Dubin, a well-known Philadelphia author, if he’d be willing to introduce Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Chabon at Chabon’s scheduled reading at the library.
“The email went on to say, ‘You are the source of his book, so I thought you’d be appropriate,’” recalled the author of South Philadelphia: Mummers, Memories, and the Melrose Diner and Tasting Freedom: Octavius Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War America.
Dubin was stunned — and confused. He’d never met Chabon personally and he didn’t know much about Chabon’s new novel, Moonglow. He thought there must have been a mix-up.
“I subsequently learned that there was a South Philly portion to the book, and he had used my book as one of his sources,” Dubin said. “I told people what had happened; they laughed and said, ‘You should introduce him anyway.’”
Had Dubin decided to do that — as a lark, and perhaps with some meta-discussion of his unsuitability for the task — Chabon would almost certainly have appreciated the humor in it. After all, his often comedic novels include countless moments of wondrous coincidence and quirky accident, and Moonglow itself is a 432-page sleight of hand: a book of fiction masquerading as a memoir. Tricksters, fools, court jesters — Chabon has a fondness for people who are not quite what they seem.
Dubin declined the invitation, though, feeling he didn’t belong onstage with Chabon. “It’s sort of like a JV basketball player introducing Kobe Bryant,” he said.
Chabon is, indeed, a Kobe Bryant of contemporary letters — though Chabon’s more humble. He wrote his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, in 1988, when he was still a graduate student at UC Irvine; Wonder Boys followed in ’95 and was made into a film in 2000 with Michael Douglas, Robert Downey Jr. and Tobey Maguire.
A year later, Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, about two Jewish comic-book creators before and after World War II, won the Pulitzer Prize. After that, he was busy: He wrote a comic series for Dark Horse Comics; a fantasy novel called Summerland; and a novella, The Final Solution, anchored by a distinctly Sherlock Holmesian investigator.
His next major novel was The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, a speculative detective fiction that imagined a world in which Jews settled in Alaska instead of Israel in 1948. He penned a nonfiction book about being a father and husband, Manhood for Amateurs, then wrote the novel Telegraph Avenue, which was optioned by prolific Hollywood producer Scott Rudin.
Despite all this success, Chabon remains humble in interviews and unaffected at public events. He tends to avoid anything that smacks of celebrity or fawning.
“He’s a very sweet and affable guy, just like he seems onstage,” said Dubin, who went to a get-together prior to Chabon’s Philly reading and had a chance to speak with Chabon for a few minutes. “He thanked me for writing my book.”
He thanked Dubin at the reading, too.
“I believe a gentleman named Murray Dubin is in the audience tonight,” said Chabon, speaking to a packed house at the Free Library’s Parkway Central branch a couple weeks ago. “He wrote a book about South Philadelphia — a really great portrait of historical South Philadelphia, especially in the earlier part of the 20th century — and I leaned on him very heavily in trying to make my Philly plausible. I was excited to get to meet him tonight.”
“I was as shocked as anyone when he gave me a shout-out from the stage,” Dubin said afterward. “It was very sweet of him and very nice and not necessary and I loved it.”
Chabon used Dubin’s book to create the backstory of Moonglow’s protagonist, who is never named — he’s simply referred to as “my grandfather” by a narrator named “Michael Chabon.” That story begins at 10th and Shunk, just a few blocks, coincidentally, from where Dubin grew up. It is the first time, Chabon noted, that “I really dug into the Philadelphia story, if you will, of my family.”
Much of the story is inspired by Chabon’s favorite great-uncle, Stanley Werbow, who was born in Philadelphia and died in 2005 in Austin, Texas. Prior to his death, Werbow dictated some memories of his Jewish Philadelphia boyhood, and Chabon mined those recollections when writing Moonglow.
He read the audience one of his favorites of Uncle Stan’s memories, which ended up, almost verbatim, in the novel. It was about being on Marshall Street — one of Philly’s Lower East Side analogues in the early 20th century — and about Werbow’s mother.
“I remember what a primitive washing machine my poor mother had … and how she lugged the wet laundry up the wooden stairs to hang them to dry and how the clothes froze stiff on cold winter days. She deserved a medal.”
There was even more Philadelphia in the original version of the novel, Chabon said, but the section he described as “super Philly” ended up being cut from the book and published in The New York Times as a short story instead.
Moonglow has arrived to rave reviews and has landed on many reviewers’ best books lists for 2016. Murray Dubin is pleased to know that he contributed in some way.
“It’s nice to think that books have legs, that they last, that they’re not over when you’re finished writing them,” he said. “I mean, South Philadelphia is 20 years old. The fact that a Pulitzer Prize winner and someone who writes as beautifully as Michael does chose to use it and it helped him, that makes [me] feel good.”
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