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BOOK REVIEW

Mezrich launches another tale

Moon rock theft in true, if not totally trustworthy story

By Adam Langer
Globe Correspondent / August 5, 2011

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‘Sex on the Moon,’’ the latest book by Ben Mezrich, author of “The Accidental Billionaires,’’ which became the basis for the Oscar-winning film “The Social Network,’’ bears a striking resemblance to books I loved when I was a wide-eyed 10-year-old. They were slim paperbacks with pictures of astronauts, ballplayers, or other heroes on their covers; the word “Great’’ appeared often in their titles - Great Spies of the Revolutionary War; Great Shortstops of Major League Baseball. I’d check them out of the library or order them from the Scholastic Book Club, and read them by the stack, imagining all the possible futures that lay before me, believing that each one could come true.

Mezrich writes his tale of Thad Roberts, a once-promising NASA recruit who stole millions of dollars worth of moon rocks from a prominent scientist, in a breathless, credulous style seemingly best suited to a brief biography of, say, Hall of Fame slugger Hank Aaron. At first, this might seem like an odd choice. But then again, Roberts’s story does suggest a Boys’ Life story gone horribly awry. In Mezrich’s telling, the convicted thief started out like someone who probably read the same books I used to. He dreamt of becoming an astronaut, of walking on Mars; he wanted “to be the brightest star - the one everyone saw when he or she looked at the sky.’’

That Roberts ultimately would reveal himself to be a sociopath is not altogether surprising; such might well be the fate of any adult who takes too literally the adolescent myths created by Hollywood or hero-worshipping biographers. The trouble with Mezrich’s book, however, is that, even after Roberts becomes something other than a merely lovable, All-American rogue, the author never fully shifts out of the realm of breezy youth biography to offer credible insights into how his subject became the man who committed “the most audacious heist in history.’’

Though Roberts becomes increasingly creepy, including sneaking onto a space shuttle flight simulator, cheating on his wife, and planning and executing the moon rock theft, Mezrich explains away much of his bad behavior with glib rationalizations - Roberts had a strict Mormon upbringing; his wife didn’t understand him; he wanted to impress a gal; what good could moon rocks do in a vault anyway?

Much of the dialogue is corny and a fair amount of the narration consists of material that readers might find overly familiar - Mezrich describes Thad’s shift from hope to despair with the lines, “Houston, we have liftoff’’ and “Houston, we have a problem.’’ The author creates some memorable supporting characters, most notably a stoned Mormon who becomes one of Thad’s accomplices and a Belgian rock collector who helps foil Thad’s plot, but the women in Thad’s life are as thin as, well, the female characters in “The Social Network.’’ Even the title, which refers to the time when Roberts and his girlfriend did the nasty in a Florida hotel room with a piece of moon rock under their mattress cover feels like a cheat, as unfortunately does much of the rest of the material here.

Though based on actual incidents, “Sex on the Moon’’ features long stretches of what its author refers to as “re-created and compressed’’ dialogue; some characters’ names, descriptions, and backgrounds “have been altered to protect privacy,’’ and much of the narration relies on Roberts’s own, self-serving version of events. In fact, “Sex on the Moon’’ often reads less like a book in and of itself than a novelization of the movie script that Mezrich is reportedly already working on. That movie would seem to have everything going for it - adventure, sex, romance, a hero who is equal parts Clifford Irving from “The Hoax,’’ Frank Abagnale from “Catch Me If You Can,’’ and George Bailey from “It’s a Wonderful Life,’’ perhaps even a lunar dream sequence that would do a more effective job of justifying the title. The movie would be even better if its supposedly true story actually rang true, or at least a good deal truer than it does in this sporadically entertaining, though not particularly trustworthy book.

Adam Langer’s most recent novel is “The Thieves of Manhattan.’’ He can be reached at Adam@AdamLanger.com.

SEX ON THE MOON:

The Amazing Story Behind the Most Audacious Heist in History

By Ben Mezrich

Doubleday, 308 pp., $26.95