April 5, 1998Tunnel Vision
A family goes from digging New York's subways to living in them.
Read the First Chapter
By DAVID WILLIS MCCULLOUGH
THIS SIDE OF BRIGHTNESS
By Colum McCann.
292 pp. New York:
Henry Holt & Company. $23.
o one can slide a note of terror into a narrator's voice quite like an Irishman. In recent years, they've given us some particularly unnerving performances, including Patrick McCabe's excursion into the mind of a psychopath, ''The Butcher Boy,'' and Roddy Doyle's ''Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha,'' which subtly illuminates a young boy's view of a family torn apart by domestic violence. Now right up there with them in its dazzling blend of menace and heartbreak is the voice of the central character in ''This Side of Brightness,'' by Colum McCann, a young Irish writer currently living in New York City (and the author of a previous novel, ''Songdogs,'' as well as a collection of stories, ''Fishing the Sloe-Black River'').
But there is a distinct difference: while McCabe and Doyle kept their novels entirely in the first person, McCann prefers, for most of his book, to hint at what a homeless man called Treefrog (born Clarence Nathan Walker) will finally tell us with such stunning power in the concluding chapter. By then, we have had time to hear the stories of the two troubled generations that preceded him, and have had a series of increasingly frightening glimpses of Treefrog's own blighted life among the saddest and most desperate outcasts of New York.
Treefrog's grandmother was Irish, an O'Leary whose people came over from Roscommon; his grandfather was black, up from the Okefenokee Swamp of Georgia; and his mother was an American Indian, a Chippewa from South Dakota. Yet Treefrog's connections to these disparate ancestors seem to have been severed by fear and madness. As we follow him through his daily routine, we are given tantalizing visions of his beloved daughter and faint hints of familiar music he plays on a harmonica. But Treefrog's life is, for the most part, a dark and restricted one, mostly lived in the recesses of the subway and train tunnels that burrow beneath Manhattan.
These tunnels are the setting -- and the symbol -- that holds McCann's book together. For it is during their construction, digging on a crew with immigrant Italians and Irishmen early in this century, that Treefrog's grandfather, Nathan Walker, finds the ''equality of darkness'' he never attains on the sunlit surface. One day there is a terrible accident, and Nathan and several others -- including an Irishman named Con O'Leary -- are blown out of their tunnel and up into the East River. Nathan survives, but Con's body is never found. Nineteen days after the accident, his wife gives birth to a daughter, Eleanor; 18 years later, Nathan and Eleanor, defying the prejudices of both blacks and whites, are married.
Throughout his long life, Nathan is drawn to the tunnels. He rides with his son, Clarence, in the front of the first car of the subway, showing him where he once worked. And later, long after Clarence -- on the run -- has been killed by the police, Nathan takes Clarence's son to the entrance to the train tunnels that run beneath Riverside Park, where Treefrog will later make his home after his world has gone mad.
Despite scenes of the day-to-day horrors of murder, drug addiction and racial hatred, ''This Side of Brightness'' is often a celebration of good, hard work -- first with Nathan down in the tunnels, then with his grandson, a construction worker in high steel, moving gracefully atop the skyscrapers that are rising above the city, exhilarating in this ''fusion of ecstasy and danger.'' But Treefrog's joy is eroded by a ferocious guilt (the dimensions of which are only slowly revealed) that drives him into the gloom beneath the city.
McCann's descriptions of the tunnels and the people who live in them can be surreal -- the sight of snow swirling through a grill into the underground darkness, the sound of an out-of-tune piano in an abandoned subway station, the smell of a steam-filled room deep below Grand Central Terminal -- but it is rarely romanticized. Treefrog's compulsively ordered life in a dark and violent community of almost forgotten people is grim indeed. This is no cozy brotherhood of the homeless. It's a world of rape, rats and drug addiction, of knife fights and random police raids.
But somehow Treefrog makes a home for himself -- he calls it a nest -- high in the metal rafters of a tunnel. From there he spies on and courts Angela, a battered woman he might be able to fall in love with -- or, at least, protect. He also remembers, re-creates and finally narrates the story of his family and the life he lost, and begins to think about the world he left behind -- about, as McCann puts it, ''all those solitary souls with their banalities and their own peculiar forms of shame.''
As a boy, Treefrog liked to do handstands on the roof of his apartment building, to balance on one foot atop a parking meter. ''This Side of Brightness'' is a similarly deft feat of balance and fancy footwork. It is also a disturbingly beautiful portrait of a family whose dreams are never quite able to stave off the painful reality of their circumstances, a portrait that ends without sentimentality and yet with renewed hope.
David Willis McCullough's books include ''Brooklyn . . . And How It Got That Way'' and a novel, ''Point No-Point.''
Return to the Books Home Page
An ambitious, idiosyncratic, moving saga of immigrant life by Irish expatriate McCann (stories: Fishing the Sloe-black River, 1996; Songdogs, 1994, etc.). Writing in a prose of considerable allusive power, McCann ingeniously uses the NYC subway as a central symbol. In 1916, the excavation of subway tunnels gives immigrant Con O’Leary a chance at a decent job, otherwise denied to recent Irish arrivals. Among his fellow “sandhogs” is Nathan Walker, a young black man also determined to secure some part of the alluring American Dream. When O’Leary dies in one of the frequent cave-ins afflicting the massive project, Walker elects to help his devastated widow and young daughter. Over the succeeding years, a complex affection draws Nathan and Con’s daughter Eleanor together, and eventually, despite the considerable risks involved, they marry. In a brisk narrative spanning eight decades, McCann finds in the struggles and fates of Eleanor and Nathan’s descendants a vivid outline of the experiences of outcasts and immigrants in American society. In a sharply ironic touch the subway tunnels that had been, for Con and Nathan, a way into the mainstream have become, by the 1980’s, a home for those on society’s far fringes. Treefrog, a homeless man who’s taken shelter beneath Riverside Park, has been so worn down by his social exile that he’s uncertain of his past and his own name. McCann further stresses the increasing harshness of modern life by juxtaposing his depiction of Treefrog’s impoverished, hallucinatory existence against some transcendent images of the natural world, including, most memorably, a recurrent image of a flock of cranes. A poet’s version of a family saga, mingling original and persuasive imagery with a story of great dramatic impact—and an angry, convincing criticism of the manner in which American society has repeatedly frustrated the attempts of outsiders to make a home. A haunting novel, by a writer emerging as a major talent (First printing of 35,000; Book-of-the-Month alternate selection; author tour)