This Side of Brightness
Collum McCann
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This Side of Brightness
Collum McCann
304 pages
January 2003
rated 4 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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In the final short story of Irishman Colum McCann’s transcendent Fishing the Sloe Black River, a Derry farmer resurrects full-grown swans buried in the muddy soil. Here McCann describes rebirth with a mythical realism that quietly renounces the wear of Northern Ireland’s violence and death.

The theme of redemptive flight from earthly and spiritual depths is revisited by McCann, now a Manhattan resident, in his mostly brilliant second novel, This Side of Brightness. Using the New York City subway system as a nexus, McCann knits two stories of alienation at opposite ends of the twentieth century. One narrative concerns Nathan Walker, a 19-year-old black man from the swamps of Georgia and so-called sandhog, who works in 1916 by digging out an underground channel from Brooklyn to Manhattan with other minority denizens. The contemporary story is of Treefrog, a former skyscraper worker and obsessive-compulsive, who makes his home in an Upper West Side subway tunnel 75 years later. The tunnels, although dangerous, offer a kind of solace for both men. McCann writes, “[T]here is a democracy beneath the river. In the darkness every man’s blood runs the same color…”

In a spectacular incident based on an actual event, Walker and two of his construction buddies are squirted from a tear in a pressurized tunnel, pushed through the riverbed floor, and blown heavenward on a geyser of East River water. A fourth tunnel worker, Irishman Con O’Leary, is permanently wedged in the riverbed muck. It is with O’Leary’s pregnant widow, and later with O’Leary’s daughter, Eleanor, that the surviving Walker — now one of New York’s legendary “Resurrection Men” — begins a regular, if initially tentative, interracial friendship. Against tremendous social resistance, Eleanor O’Leary and Walker eventually marry, and McCann chronicles their arduous uptown lives and those of their descendants during the next seven decades.

Against their saga of oppression, McCann juxtaposes the recurrent image of crane flight, such as that remembered by Walker during his Okefenokee childhood or later by Walker’s daughter-in-law in her stuporous imitation of the dancing birds known from her Carolina girlhood. McCann illustrates:

“She starts to move: the high cheekbones, the threaded hair, the white white teeth, a gray dress, no shoes, her brown toes lyrical on the worn carpet. Walker, embarrassed, turns his head slightly, but then returns the gaze as Louisa dances, hands out-stretched, arms in a whirl, feet back and forth, the most primitive of movements, dissolving the boundaries of her body.”
This passage exemplifies the kind of luminous writing that makes up much of Walker’s story. But McCann can betray uneasy moments of contrivance when attempting to craft the simple talk of American folk or when handling the sometimes clumsy, saltatory format of Walker’s narrative. These shortcomings are, by and large, relatively minor; nevertheless, they prevent This Side of Brightness from being an outright masterwork.

The parallel thread of Treefrog is the unequivocally extraordinary part of McCann’s book, and its style recalls the lyrical estrangement depicted in his first novel, the resplendent Songdogs (the crux of which is also a marriage of disparate ethnicities). Treefrog is a man so lost he’s forgotten his original name, and his story begins with his attempts to free a bird — what he imagines to be a crane — from the frozen Hudson. In describing Treefrog’s underground existence over the next 39 days of a bleak Manhattan winter, McCann displays a remarkably authentic feel for the humdrum filth and patchwork nature of a wholly dispossessed life: Treefrog playing solitary handball; Treefrog compulsively mapping his scrappy lair; Treefrog scrounging for redeemable cans. But McCann also shows that Treefrog can recognize the odd, lovely moment — for instance, new snow falling through a ceiling grate — in his subterranean squalor. Treefrog also spends much time ruminating on his former topside existence. McCann describes a halcyon, hallucinatory moment:

“He lives three blocks from anybody else in the tunnel. Sometimes, gazing along its length, he sees a watery movement in the distance, and it looks to Treefrog like a canoe being paddled with intent; or his daughter swimming toward him, arms stretched wide; or his wife moving through the blackness, slender, night-eyed, forgiving. But then the dark clarifies itself, and the visions are gone.”
Treefrog’s life is intensely desolate but not without redemptive hope. As McCann reveals, even Treefrog can learn to crane dance in a noteworthy story of cyclic rebirth.

© 2003 by Barbara J. Martin for Curled Up With a Good Book

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