Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Man in the Blue Moon by Michael Morris is that is has its origins in a family story, a curious event that happened to the author’s grandfather. Around the bare bones of family anecdote, Morris weaves a truly fascinating tale of love, abandonment, desperation, greed, hypocrisy, faith, murder and second chances. In it, a very typical Southern town, during the last days of World War I and the early days of the Spanish flu epidemic, has to deal with an enormously atypical situation, one of uncanny forces beyond anything they’ve previously experienced, something well outside ordinary comprehension.
Ella Wallace’s husband, Harlan, has abandoned her and their three sons, leaving them on the verge of bankruptcy, and seemingly with only one option: to sell the land that had been in her family for generations, which she had promised her dying father not to do. Salvation seems to arrive in the form of an ornate clock her husband had seemingly ordered before his disappearance, that could raise enough money for the mortgage payment on the land. However, when the crate from the Blue Moon Clock Company is opened, the contents are not what anyone could have expected.
Inside the crate is a man – Lanier Stillis, a distant relative of Harlan Wallace’s, who, out of sheer desperation and with no other way to escape, had himself boxed up and shipped to family. His arrival and the events that follow change the lives of everyone in Apalachicola, Florida. Landing in the middle of hardship and struggle, he brings his own complications with him, as he proves ultimately unable to outrun his past. The collision of these forces drives the plot, in intricate twists and turns that will leave the reader breathless.
Thus far, the plot closely resembles reality – a man, acquitted of murder but fleeing the vengeance of his late wife’s relatives, did indeed have himself shipped to Apalachicola as a means of escape. From that point forward, however, it diverges sharply from the point of inspiration, diving into a fantastic world that still bears close resemblance to our own: beautifully Southern and yet wonderfully universal. The characters are intensely vivid, and wonderfully complex, even the most minor of them. The best and worst of human nature are on full display here, often within the same individual. Nothing is simple, and everything is far more than it seems.
Haunting is the word that best describes the novel as a whole – or more accurately, haunted. Every one of the main characters is shadowed by ghosts of the past, constantly nipping at their heels. Choices and their consequences reverberate throughout the plot, set against the backdrop of a world coming apart at the seams. Bad choices and trouble legacies abound, with everyone involved facing the same troubling questions: When everything falls down, how do you pick up the pieces and rebuild? What happens in the aftermath of tragedy?
This image of the past haunting the present goes hand-in-hand with another theme of the book, that of redemption and recovery, of learning from the past and taking second chances whenever and wherever they appear. If no second chance seems forthcoming, make one. With enough effort (and a certain amount of faith and luck), it is possible to outrun the past, and reshape the future in a different fashion, that of one’s own making.
On a more personal level, Man in the Blue Moon holds a special place in my heart – its launch back in September was the first signing I attended after I began working at the Booksmith. Not only is it an extraordinary read, it was also my introduction to the incredible world of signed books.