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This Side Of Brightness

By Colum McCann
Published by Phoenix House

This, Colum McCann’s second novel, after 1995’s Songdogs, and his third book, if you include his debut collection of short stories, Fishing the Sloe-Black River, is a triumph, and confirms his reputation as the most lyrically gifted of the younger generation of Irish novelists currently establishing themselves.
Set in New York, the story presents a panoply of life spanning the twentieth century in that city, albeit seen through the eyes of the poor and dispossessed, by relating a family saga over three generations. Structurally, the book oscillates back and forth between Nathan Walker, a black man from Georgia, and his working on the construction of the tunnel beneath the East River linking Brooklyn and Manhattan, and the subways beneath Manhattan itself, and his obsessive-compulsive grandson Clarence Nathan, or ‘Treefrog’ as he is better known among the various other drop-outs from the rat race of topside, with whom he lives as a mole in the underground warren of tunnels his grandfather helped to build. In between them comes Clarence, son to one and father to the other. These stories progress side by side, until both sets of narrative meet up in the present.




What links the three men of the family history with the contemporary tunnel dwellers under the city is that all have suffered some traumatic calamity, each one a broken person with their own story. McCann has a highly honed sensitivity to injustice, and a highly developed awareness of the difficulties and hardships involved in making a tolerable life, and the fragility and transience of any comfortable life, and he invests his book with a sense of both the awfulness and ordinariness of life’s tragedies. Many of the subway people had led perfectly respectable, integrated lives, until the day that chance intervened, and the former cop lost his nerve and shot the wrong person, or the former high school art teacher’s lover was shot in a drive by shooting. When animals are wounded or in pain, they hide alone in the dark, and so too do these people.
In the first pages of the book, Walker and three of his fellow labourers are victims of an accident, when a blow-out occurs in the tunnel they are digging, and they are spat out into the riverbed and hurled up through the river by the force of the escaping air. Three of them survive, one dies. This incident is based on an actual historical occurrence, and it should be pointed out that the whole book, from the sandhogs who built the tunnels to the derelicts who inhabit then now, has been meticulously researched, with McCann spending time with representatives of both communities.
Nathan marries Eleanor, the daughter of his Irish emigrant colleague who was killed, a mixed race union which causes them both much grief. Their son, Clarence, loses an eye in the Korean war, and is killed ‘resisting arrest’, after he has killed the man who ran over his mother in a car crash, and a policeman who tried to apprehend him. Louisa, the girl who nursed him in Korea, and is the mother of Clarence Nathan, slips into alcoholism and heroin addiction. Clarence Nathan, in direct contrast to his grandfather, walks the girders precipitous high above the city, as a construction worker on the skyscrapers. Until Walker dies in his arms, at he age of eighty-nine, crushed by a train as they were exploring the subways he had laboured to burrow out, and Clarence Nathan seeks refuge underground, becoming ‘Treefrog’.
If this litany of disasters sounds mawkishly sentimental, in McCann’s hands it avoids that trap, and takes on other resonances. For, as with all worthwhile writers, here it is the language that counts, and there are passages so good that they could be quoted in full, if space permitted. A couple of phrases that can serve as examples are: ‘A unified song of self-deception’ to describe a church service after a bereavement; and: ‘the choreography of commerce toward the sky’, as an image of the Manhattan skyline. On the evidence of this novel alone, even aside from his other work, Dublin-born McCann, now resident in New York, is a writer with talent to burn.

First published in The World of Hibernia













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