Frontier Psychiatrist

Space Cowboy – A Review of Ben Mezrich, Sex on the Moon

Posted on: January 16, 2012

Ben Mezrich has chronicled the high-stakes shenanigans of shady students at elite educational institutions for nearly a decade. His best-sellers include: Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas for Millions; Ugly Americans: The True Story of the Ivy League Cowboys Who Raided the Asian Markets for Millions; and The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook. In his latest book, the precocious protagonist is Thad Roberts, an aspiring astronaut who steals moon rocks from NASA. Allegedly worth millions, the lunar samples are literally priceless, since it’s illegal for anyone to buy, sell, or even own a piece of the moon.

Sex on the Moon is a compelling hybrid of heist thriller, love story, and morality tale. Beneath the page turner plot, the book both celebrates and critiques the American values of self-improvement, prosperity, and recognition. As in his prior work, Mezrich vacillates between elitism and anti-elitism. His portrait of Roberts implies a fine line between striver and criminal, romantic and sociopath.

While Mezrich never condones the moon rock heist, he humanizes Roberts in his transformation from bright star to thief. The sympathetic portrait starts as Roberts escapes his small-town roots and the Mormon parents who disown him for the sin of premarital sex. He then catapults from the University of Utah to an elite internship at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. There, among some of the country’s top science students, he becomes the big man on campus: teacher’s pet, party boy, daredevil, and man of mystery. Despite his success, he still never feels like he belongs. Eventually, he hatches a plan to steal the moon rocks with his new girlfriend and pull off “the heist of the millennium.” By now, the reader is rooting for him to succeed.

As a portrait of a romantic, Sex on the Moon reads like a nonfiction version of The Great Gatsby. Roberts reinvents himself just as farm boy James Gatz became the glamorous Gatsby.  LIke Gatsby,  his tragic flaws include hubris, narcissism, and grandiosity. He’s driven by an obsessive desire for status, acceptance, and love for a woman he barely knows. And in a scientific culture built on collaboration, he refuses to be “just one bright star in a constellation.” Above all, Roberts has a tenuous grip on reality. As Mezrich writes: “Fantasy had always been his true talent, the cloak he’d wrapped himself in to protect him from the things he couldn’t control.”

The book’s hard-boiled style keeps the pace brisk and the tension high, yet tends toward melodrama. While cliches like “train wreck in progress,” “total loose cannon,” and “avoid…like the plague,” may reflect the voice of the characters, they distract from the strength of the story.  Ironically, the prose sometimes reads like Mezrich’s own appraisal of Roberts’s letters to his girlfriend: “Flowery, sometimes cliched, but always sincere.”

That said, the story should translate well to the screen. (Mezrich’s previous books inspired 21 and The Social Network). With the frequent movie allusions in Sex on the Moon, the author practically supplies the pitch: Apollo 13 meets Mission Impossible meets James Bond. Even Roberts and his girlfriend fantasize about their lives being made into a movie.

It’s no spoiler to say that nobody literally has sex on the moon. But in one of the book’s most memorable scenes, Roberts comes damn close.

Keith Meatto is co-editor of Frontier Psychiatrist. His recent reviews include Between Parentheses and The Third Reich, both by Roberto Bolaño. For more reading recommendations, see his Top 10 Fiction Books of 2011 and Top 10 Nonfiction Books of 2011.


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8 Responses to "Space Cowboy – A Review of Ben Mezrich, Sex on the Moon"

[…] Home Space Cowboy – A Review of Ben Mezrich, Sex on the Moon […]

[…] Meatto is co-editor of Frontier Psychiatrist. His recent reviews include Adam and Evelyn, Sex on the Moon and two books by Roberto Bolaño: Between Parentheses and The Third Reich. For more reading […]

[…] Meatto is co-editor of Frontier Psychiatrist. His recent reviews include Adam and Evelyn, Sex on the Moon and two books by Roberto Bolaño: Between Parentheses and The Third Reich. For more reading […]

[…] Meatto is co-editor of Frontier Psychiatrist. His recent reviews include Adam and Evelyn, Sex on the Moon and Between Parentheses. For more reading recommendations, see his Top 10 Fiction Books of […]

[…] Meatto is co-editor of Frontier Psychiatrist. His recent book reviews include Sex on the Moon, The Third Reich, and Extra Virginity. Really. Share […]

[…] of Frontier Psychiatrist. His recent book reviews include Extra Virginity, Adam and Evelyn, and Sex on the Moon Share this:ShareEmailTwitterFacebookRedditStumbleUponYahoo BuzzDiggLike this:LikeBe the first to […]

[…] of Frontier Psychiatrist. His recent book reviews include Extra Virginity, Adam and Evelyn, and Sex on the Moon Share this:ShareEmailTwitterFacebookRedditStumbleUponYahoo BuzzDiggLike this:LikeOne blogger likes […]

[…] include Roberto Bolaño’s The Secret of Evil, Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists, and Sex on the Moon. He likes to gamble, but not in casinos. Share this:ShareEmailTwitterFacebookRedditStumbleUponYahoo […]

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