In his ambitious novel This Side of Brightness, Colum McCann goes to the outer reaches of a city – the tunnels underneath and the skyscrapers above – to craft a complex story of family, race and redemption in New York City.
The narrative begins in 1916 with a bravura opening based on a real life occurrence. A multi-racial group of ‘sandhogs’ – the men who dug the tunnels for the New York subway system – are labouring through their slow and physically tough work, when a blow-out throws Nathan Walker, Vannuci Power and Con O’Leary through the East River and back out into the air above ground. Except Con O’Leary doesn’t make it, remaining trapped forever in the ground upon which New York City is built.
The story follows Nathan Walker, a black man, and his experiences following this life-changing accident through the century. The theme of race-relations in America is a recurring one as Nathan contends with being part of a mixed race marriage at a time when such a union would have been life-threatening.
it strikes Walker that it’s only in the tunnels that he feels any equality of darkness
An alternating storyline, set in the present day, plays out alongside Nathan’s as we meet Treefrog, a homeless man who lives in the very tunnels dug by Nathan and his friends. Treefrog has is estranged from his wife and daughter and lives in the rafters of the tunnels, drinking and self-mutilating while obsessing over maps and plans. His shame has driven him into the darkness and until he faces his past, he will struggle to find redemption.
Lord I’m so lowdown I think I’m looking up at down.
Once a construction worker building the cities skyscrapers and higher than he could ever imagine being, Treefrog’s story starts at the opposite end of Nathan’s and works backwards, but the two narratives soon converge, like two ends of a tunnel, to give a broad picture of working class life in twentieth century America.
This Side of Brightness is cleverly structured with a strong emotional pull as the links between the two men are hinted at like breadcrumbs on a trail. Here are men at different ends of a century working at different ends of the physical world both trying to make sense of the life that they have been born into. As their stories become clearer and more linked, McCann draws out how random acts of chance can affect a family for generations.
McCann has clearly heavily researched this book and at times, it can feel weighed down with unnecessary detail, as Nathan in particular sounding more like a character than an actual man. However he is adept at bringing these unknown areas of a city alive – the labyrinthine darkness of the tunnels and the bright balancing beams of the city skyscrapers – and subtly explores how the men that built both the foundations and the great heights of the city are eventually discarded and hidden from view.
As with all McCann’s novels, This Side of Brightness contains some beautiful writing. Hypodermic needles have ‘pops of blood at their tips like poppies erupting in a field’ while a street is ‘cantankerous with car horns’.
Con O’Leary’s daughter, twenty years on from his death, rides the subway he gave his life to build and thinks of the father she never knew;
She salute’s her father’s sleeping form as she travels back and forth underneath the river. She doesn’t think of him as agonised or frozen in a strange ascension – rather he is upright, proud, standing by some muck-bed strongarm machine, held in tableau, grinning
There is a lyricism and poignancy to the prose here that elevates the narrative, particularly when describing Nathan Walker’s final days. As the lives of Treefrog and Nathan finally unite, the revelations are both heartbreaking and discomfiting. Treefrog’s admission of why he has been cast from his family is a shock when it comes, but it is the emotive reasoning as to why it happened that won’t sit easy with all readers and certainly didn’t work for me.
That said, Colum McCann is an astute and sensitive writer, particularly when exploring loneliness and isolation. Even the smallest of characters in this novel are well-rounded and expertly drawn and create a map of an unseen city populated with those who have lost their way in an unforgiving world.
We were so happy sitting on there on the stoop that we went changed the words and we were singing: Lord I’m so high-up I believe I’m looking down at up
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