In the wake of the huge critical success garnered by Colum McCann’s seventh novel, Let the Great World Spin, there has been an uptick of interest in his earlier works, particularly including his third novel, This Side of Brightness. This novel displays the seedlings of many techniques that McCann would later develop into the text that won him a National Book Award, including most notably the interlocking stories of an intergenerational narrative. A tragedy woven out of the compelling literal underground of New York City, the novel gives clear evidence that recognition of McCann’s talent is overdue.
Voicing this testament to human sorrow and the possibility for redemption is two-time Audie Award finalist Joe Barrett. Barrett’s natural huskiness seeps into the fabric of the text, and he delivers an utterly credible portrayal of each branch of Nathan Walker’s sad family tree. Nathan left the South to dig subway tunnels, and when one of these tunnels inevitably collapses, Nathan’s lot is cast with an Irishman’s widow. This primary thread is pulled closer and closer to the other main story, which involves Treefrog, a man who lives in an abandoned subway tunnel. Barrett’s performance of Treefrog is especially solid, by turns pitifully frozen and achingly funny.
As the family line becomes clear, disaster hacks off one branch at a time. The fear of interracial coupling, the downward spiral of drug and alcohol addiction, and the trauma of child abuse all rear their ugly heads, reshaping these interdependent lives with all the fury of a runaway train. McCann marches inexorably toward Nathan Walker’s own death, the question of whether obsessive compulsive Treefrog can manage a life above ground hanging in the balance. Barrett manages to give distinctive voice to each of four generations, reaching across race and class to produce a wonderfully melancholy portrait of 70 years’ worth of life touched by the New York City subway system. This is a must-listen not just for fans of McCann’s later work, but also for anybody who rides the train. Megan Volpert
From the author of Songdogs, a magnificent work of imagination and history set in the tunnels of New York City. In the early years of the century, Nathan Walker leaves his native Georgia for New York City and the most dangerous job in America. A sandhog, he burrows beneath the East River, digging the tunnel that will carry trains from Brooklyn to Manhattan.
Above ground, the sandhogs - black, white, Irish, Italian - keep their distance from each other until a spectacular accident welds a bond between Walker and his fellow diggers, a bond that will bless and curse the next three generations.
Years later, Treefrog, a homeless man driven below by a shameful secret, endures a punishing winter in his subway nest. In tones ranging from bleak to disturbingly funny, Treefrog recounts his strategies of survival: killing rats, scavenging for discarded soda cans, washing in the snow. Between Nathan Walker and Treefrog stretch 70 years of ill-fated loves and unintended crimes.
In a triumph of plotting, the two stories fuse to form a tale of family, race, and redemption that is as bold and fabulous as New York City itself. In This Side of Brightness, Colum McCann confirms his place in the front ranks of modern writers.
©1991 Colum McCann (P)2010 Audible, Inc
"This Side of Brightness weaves historical fact with fictional truth, creating a remarkable tale of death, racism, homelessness--and yes, love--spanning four generations.... [T]he grimness of McCann's tale is leavened by the beauty of his prose and the intimations all through the book that, even on this side of darkness, redemption is possible." (Amazon.com review)
If you loved "Let the Great World Spin," as I did, this is an interesting read because you can see McCann work out some of the themes of that book here. I did not love it, but it held my attention and got me thinking and I was completely wrapped up in the characters and their story. The narrator was really excellent - acted the parts without seeming fake or forced. A good listen - but go for "Let the Great World Spin" first.
Say something about yourself!
i loved the low down deep dirty sad lives they lived.. great descriptions.. great names.. great book.
This is a book about an interracial family and the wonderful and terrible things that happen to them in twentieth century New York.
Nathan Walker is a black man who has come to New York from his native Georgia. He has taken a job as a ‘sand hog’ – a worker in the dirty and hazardous job of digging tunnels beneath the city. In 1916 he is working with three co-workers on a tunnel for trains to travel from Brooklyn into the city. They work at the leading end of the tunnel, the most dangerous part. One day there is a blowout in their part of the tunnel. All of them should probably have been killed. But due to an anomaly in how the work is done – they work in an atmosphere of compressed air that renders them susceptible to the bends if not managed carefully – and a misunderstanding in the alarm relayed back down the tunnel, Nathan and two of the co-workers are somehow blown out of the tunnel and up through the river bottom to the top of the river where they are saved. Their fourth co-worker, Connor O’Leary, is not so lucky. He dies, and his body is not recoverable.
The remaining sand hogs remain close to Connor’s widow, especially Nathan, who oversees the collection he has taken up from the other tunnel workers for her and comes to visit regularly every Sunday for the next several years. Connor’s daughter, born a few months after the accident, becomes very fond of Nathan. When she is grown, they get married, despite hostility and uncertainty from many of the people around them. They encounter opposition, but they are able to rise above it – literally, in one case where they are forced to move to an apartment on a higher floor after somebody throws bricks through their bedroom window the first day after they are married.
They have three children, and despite some more rough spots they are mostly pretty happy until a hostile downstairs neighbor manages to kill Eleanor, Nathan’s wife, in a drunken bout of reckless driving. Nathan’s son, Clarance, beats the neighbor to death and decides he must run away to his father’s old haunts in Georgia, leaving his father, two sisters, and a pregnant wife (or girlfriend, or whatever). Life in Georgia is no better; in fact, it being the 1950’s by now, it is worse. He never makes it to the ancestral swamp but is killed by cops who claim to have caught him fleeing the scene of some crime.
The story actually opens with a character who is initially introduced to us only as ‘Tree Frog.' Tree Frog lives in the subway tunnels along with several other homeless people and obviously suffers from a serious mental illness of some kind. It is about two-thirds of the way through the book before we begin to suspect that Tree Frog and Nathan Walker are somehow connected. It turns out that Tree Frog is actually Nathan’s grandson, Clarance Nathan Walker.
The appearance of a young woman in the tunnels eventually moves Tree Frog to remember his own story and what caused him to take to living in the subway tunnels. As he tells her his story in bits and pieces, he slowly comes to leave his madness behind. The girl, Angie, still struggling with her own issues, doesn’t stay with him for long but returns to the man in the tunnel she originally came to see. But Tree Frog destroys his nest in the tunnels and in the end resumes his real identity and begins to move forward to the next part of his life.
I was most impressed with how Tree Frog, who had earlier found himself not helped even by psychiatric counseling, finally manages to heal himself in this way.
Susie R Powell
We walk across bridges that someone else built, and trains go through tunnels dug by persons now invisible. This is a remarkable story of the suffering that went into something we take for granted.
This book needs to be digested and can be listened to in pieces over several days. The pace is good but it needs not be gobbled up in one sitting.
The men were humans, good and bad. Some were humane, the subject of race was touched on with just the right brush stroke. When tragedy struck, it was deep. There are ceremonies and ribbon cuttings for these things all handled with men with no mud on their hands. One man's life was barely worth a half year wages if I have calculated correctly.
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