Book Review: Ben Mezrich's 'Sex on the Moon'

One of the inescapable aspects of working at Boston magazine is that one time or another, you’ll end up reading at least two or three Ben Mezrich books for work — after all, he’s our town’s biggest celebrity author. Whether this required reading is a perk or a peril depends on the staffer, but I personally am agnostic. Basically I boil it down to these issues: I’ve long found much of Mezrich’s writing flat and clichéd (though he improves with every book), and I have major problems with his infamous “re-created dialogue” and spiced-up narrative that he inserts into what he markets as non-fiction. On the other hand, though, I can’t deny that his books are entertaining, brisk reads. And I have to give him credit for creating a one-man book/movie industry around himself — a feat that reached its apotheosis earlier this year when The Social Network‘s screenplay won an Oscar, based in part on Mezrich’s bestselling Facebook saga, The Accidental Billionaires. And in the end, he seems a nice enough chap, so bully for him. What’s next?

Indeed, such a watershed moment would seem a great time for Mezrich to take some chances, perhaps shore up his writing skills even more and learn to tell his stories without jazzing up the facts. Perhaps swing for the fences with a story that isn’t necessarily about a charming rogue that breaks the rules, gets the hot girl, and lives to tell the heart-racing tale so that you, reader, can live vicariously through him. Of course, that wouldn’t be a Ben Mezrich book.

And so, here we are with his new release, out just yesterday: Sex on the Moon, subtitled in typically breathless Mezrichian fashion “The Amazing Story Behind the Most Audacious Heist in History.” It all sounds promising until you learn that it’s about a NASA trainee who decides to steal some moon rocks. Somewhat underwhelmed, I still thought it could be a curious premise. After all, I was an astronomy buff as a kid and have always been enraptured by the Apollo lunar missions. (Memo to all moon nerds like me: Read Andrew Chaikin’s definitive and engaging Apollo history, A Man on the Moon, and buy — not rent — the beautiful documentary For All Mankind.)

So: I made a conscious decision going in not to be too concerned about the, uh, embellishments and elisions that Mezrich makes with his story arcs, but to just kick back and read it. Since Mezrich’s writing and reporting are always part of the story, I’ll get this out of the way: Yes, this book contains yet another “author’s note” explaining his usual process that aims to explain why facts are fuzzy and dialogue sounds unreal in spots. (Really, do all NASA trainees refer to everything as “fucking cool”?) And yes, there’s some impressively hackneyed writing, particularly when referring to protagonist Thad Roberts and his insatiable mission to BE SOMEBODY:

“What Thad didn’t realize yet — but would soon learn — was that being just one bright star in a constellation simply wasn’t in his nature….He wanted to be the brightest star — the one everyone saw when he or she looked at the sky. And the scary thing was, it didn’t really matter if that star was bright because it was the biggest — or because it was just about to go supernova.”

I mean, whew, that’s quite the overextended metaphor. But hey, he makes millions writing this stuff and I don’t, so let it go, I say.

Beyond that, this 308-page tome moves fast, and does have its share of interesting segments, especially concerning the NASA training program and the methods of storing moon rocks, primarily in the top-security lunar vault at the Johnson Space Center. And then there’s the likeable Axel Emmerman, the Belgian rock collector who tips off the FBI to investigate Roberts’s scheme. He actually seems real, with motivations that make sense … unlike Thad Roberts, the book’s off-putting main “character” (Mezrich’s word, not mine). And therein lies the intractable problem with Sex on the Moon.

Roberts is a young guy who married his high school sweetheart and got kicked out of his family for doing so. Romantic and noble enough. But while working at the University of Utah Museum, he starts stealing fossils — literally stuffing them in his pockets — and showing them off at parties, because he felt that it was a waste that the museum wasn’t displaying them. (Somehow the role of a research institution seems lost on Roberts — and on Mezrich.) His wife supports his decision to train at the Johnson Space Center, so he leaves her behind in Salt Lake City, but then pouts when she gets her own career and social life back home. Hmm, getting less sympathetic.

This trend towards unlikeability really soars when Roberts sees his first moon rock, shown him by kindly, legendary scientist Everett Gibson, and immediately starts thinking about what each gram would fetch on the black market. Soon Roberts is cheating on his wife with a fellow trainee, develops a lightning-quick infatuation, and then steals his mentor’s moon rocks as some misguided gesture to this woman he’s known for only a month. At every step, he has a glib rationalization for his actions, but only when he finally gets caught is he abjectly really, really sorry. In short, this guy comes across like a sad sociopath, and the heist itself is more bumbling than “audacious.” And this is who I’m supposed to be rooting for hundreds of pages?

Mezrich describes in the most cheery way how Roberts betrays nearly everyone who likes and trusts him — do you really want this guy to steal our nation’s moon rocks? I know, you haven’t lain awake nights thinking about this question, but you will during the time you spend reading Sex on the Moon. And in my case, I couldn’t stop rooting against him and even laughed when his estranged wife finally gives him a short, sharp, witty comeuppance. Now I can see that moment on screen. To be fair, there’s good material here, but it’s more fitting of a magazine feature exploring how this essentially harmless, confused, deluded person made the biggest mistake of his life.

But of course, I’m sure that’s not the effect Mezrich was looking for. His mission in all his books is to be the main guy’s mouthpiece, to make you like him and want to live through his adventure with him. Other Mezrich books have blithely skirted moral dilemmas as well, but that’s okay. The MIT students who try to take the casinos in two of his books — who’s going to pull for the casinos? In two other books, the charismatic guys who work the financial systems to their advantage still come across pretty cool, even in this post-2008 age. And as for Mark Zuckerberg, he’s an unparalleled antihero if there ever was one, but hey, he created Facebook. In this new book, Thad Roberts just wants to undersell the most important souvenirs of our space age for a mere $100,000, and he tries to do it by sending out some emails.

As the author writes in his online bio: “Ben Mezrich has created his own highly addictive genre of nonfiction, chronicling the amazing stories of young geniuses making tons of money on the edge of impossibility, ethics, and morality.” Defined this way, his prior books have pretty well succeeded, which is why they’re so popular. Unfortunately, his new one has Mezrich caught in a bind. He tries to paint Roberts as an impulsive dreamer, but instead it’s clear that he’s stuck putting polish on an unpalatable protagonist who’s no genius, who has no money and makes none, and who frankly is pretty lame. All that’s left are questionable ethics and an amorality that’s impossible to defend or enjoy. And that, dear reader, is ultimately why Sex on the Moon feels like one long aborted launch.