Review 3 This Side of Brightness by Colum McCann (Picador, New York, 1998)
This is a very good book, indeed, though not brilliant. In other words on a scale of 1 to 10 I’d give it somewhere around 6.5 or a possible 7 whereas The Gathering and Moon Tiger would definitely get a 9 or a 9.5 each by my standards. Anyway, now for my thoughts on this novel.
Summer allows me to read novels, something I never seem to manage to do during the school year. Thankfully this year la bella farniente here in Isca Marina is allowing me to read and read, and also to write and write quite simply because I have no other distractions except to be, to exist and to read and write.
This novel is about tunnelling down and tunnelling up. The story on the surface is a simple one: At the turn of the century - 1900 - Nathan Walker (a negro) comes to New York to take one of the most dangerous jobs in the country, that is as a sandhog, a new word in my lexicon, but such an apt one. A sandhog is a labourer who literally digs tunnels after the dynamite has blown the rock to pieces. Anyway, Nathan burrows under the East River and with his co-workers he is digging the tunnel that will carry trains from Brooklyn to Manhattan. In the bowels of the riverbed, the sandhogs - black, white, Irish, Italian, Polish - dig together in the darkness. In this horrible darkness all racial differences are erased - these men earn their bread by the sweat of their brow - and there is no difference in that sweat. However, at the time, above the ground the men had to keep their distance. However, one day a spectacular accident welds a bond between Walker and his fellow sandhogs that will both bless and curse three generations.
Counterpointing this epic narrative is the present-day story of Treefrog, one of the many homeless who now live a harrowing existence beneath the city streets.
The technique of having two parallel narratives going at one time is brilliant. One is, as it were, invited into the minds of two separate individuals divided over 60 or 70 years. The reader is left to puzzle out what the connection is between the two narratives. However, both are connected by the image or motif of the tunnel which runs through the novel. Tunnels are dark places and are only carved out at great expense both financially and in human terms - historically many labourers have died or been crippled in the effort. However, as a result of their efforts we can get across rivers and through mountains with relatively little effort.
However, the tunnel is also a deeply psychic metaphor - about going down into the unknown aspect of ourselves - into our dark unconscious. The men who worked on the tunnels in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were courageous and strong human beings. They descended into two or more darknesses viz., the darkness of the actual tunnel, the darkness of the unconscious as I’ve already explained. Then, there are other possible darknesses also explored in this novel: the darkness of mental illness; the darkness of racial hatred; the darkness of being poor whether white or black; the darkness of violence; the darkness of sexual abuse etc. There are, then, many darknesses explored in this book.
But we all realise that we would not know what the dark is unless we also knew what the light is. Consequently, there are also many bright spots in this novel: old Nathan Walker’s strength both physical and spiritual - one feels he is the steadiest of characters ion the book: in fact the book is skilfully crafted around his character. He gives the light of understanding to his offspring of two generations, whether that light is heeded or not.
One is inspired by this novel because there is a very well honed social conscience at work in This Side of Brightness. Our author is very sympathetic to the poor, be they black or white or any colour in between. Our hero Nathan is befriended by fellow Irish and Italian workers and they become friends in their underground world and they do their best, despite the contemporary racial and social prejudice to continue their friendship up in the “real” world. “Real” is one of those words that is much abused like “truth” and “love.” However, this novel covers such universal themes like justice, truth and love in a very credible way. It deals with inter-racial marriage and describes how hard this was for those involved in such relationships at the beginning of the twentieth century.
This novel also deals with the themes of ageing, oldage, dying, death, violence, rape, prostitution, drug addiction, violence and murder. It is almost all encompassing in its universality. However, there is absolutely no sentimentality or schmaltz in this novel - a level to which such a novel could have reduced itself. In this book, the characters are all too real - all too believable, all too prone to weaknesses, all too aware of their failings and only occasionally of their strengths. In short, these characters ring true to life and we believe in and trust and love them. In turns, we cry and we celebrate with them and even laugh with them.
Now for some quotations from this fine novel. Speaking of equality and social justice through the thoughts of Nathan Walker, Colum McCann states:
“But Walker takes no offense. (sic) He knows there is a democracy beneath the river. In the darkness every man’s blood runs the same colour - a dago the same as a nigger the same as a Polack the same as a mick (sic) - so Walker just laughs, puts the winnings in his pocket, and deals a second hand.” (Op.cit.,9)
The philosophy of life which these sandhogs professed was simple:
“There have been many deaths in the tunnel, but there’s a law the sandhogs accept: you live as long as you do until you don’t.” (Ibid., 9)
As I have already related above the central character of Nathan Walker stands out as courageous, strong and resilient. He has to go through many travails in his life, yet he never gives up. As Bob Dylan puts it in one of his ballads, he is the type of guy who “just keeps on keeping on.” That’s the type of guy our man Nathan Walker is and we feel for him become we can identify with him insofar as he is painted so realistically. Other characters are equally real, but are simply not as strong.
Walker’s philosophy of life is also that of the old negro spirituals. He breaks the darkness with his religious or spiritual verses:
“Lord, I ain’t seen a sunset Since I came on down. No, I ain’t seen nothing like a sunset Since I came on down.” (Ibid., 14)
What appealed to me greatly about this novel was the precision of the historical research into the tunnel building in the 19th and 20th centuries in New York. Not along that but our author has a great sympathy and appreciation for minority communities of all sorts. This is a novel with a sharp and critical social conscience. Also it is a very human and humane novel. It paints all its characters with sympathy and objectivity, scorning all sentimentality. There is also a deep understanding of the traditions and myths that each community lives by whether they be Irish, Polack, Black American or just plain believers or unbelievers. No matter what a character’s stance in life Colum McCann shows a great appreciation for symbol and for ritual whether that be overtly religious or purely humanly significant like Maura getting Nathan Walker to throw her gold wedding band or ring into the tunnel just shortly before its opening in memory of her dear husband who died in its construction. There are some other references to ritual also in the novel and McCann shows his deep understanding of human needs in his accounts thereof.
Before I finish these thoughts, I should like to say a word or two on the title. We should rejoice in this title as it is a hopeful rather than a despairing one. This is a hopeful and positive novel, not a despairing and negative one. Although this novel is replete in violence it is also shot through with the strong rays of love and healing - witness the tenderness expressed between the two homeless characters: Treefrog and Angie. There is a hint of redemption at the end of the novel as the character Treefrog destroys his underground lodging and seems to head for the light of the world about that of the dark tunnels. As the novel’s title suggests he is just a little bit on “this side of brightness” and is struggling to get to the other side. We feel instinctively that he’ll make it, though we also intuitively know that he will have to suffer a lot in so doing.
Finally, this is a good novel quite simply because it refuses to embrace sentimentality or triviality. In short, this is a profoundly human and spiritual novel that shows humanity in all its horror and glory.