For the first fifty pages or so, I was very iffy. It opens with a vignette about the tightrope walker, which was prettily written and interesting. Okay. Then we moved into a narrative that starts off in Ireland. I found myself confused, but going along with it, yet as it went on and on, I began to get impatient, because I didn't know what the point was.
I think this here is it though: I had expected a traditional literary novel, one with a clear trajectory or arc or something, and I had no idea what I was in for here. This second section being so unrelated, I got impatient. The writing was wonderful, but it felt like a short story, and one I hadn't signed up to read. So for awhile I would put down the book for days at a time before picking it up again.
Yet the longer I stuck with it, the more intrigued I became. I started to see, by the fourth piece, that these stories were interlocking, and yet each told its own story. I began to feel that there was some core momentous issue or event (and not the tightrope walker as is the obvious device, but another event that would only become clear at the end) that these stories were revolving around, like rings around a planet, slowly being revealed, or an onion being peeled or something.
And knowing that, each successive story became more and more important, so that by the time I reached the last sections, I was being blown away. Each story became more and more resonant, in an urgent, poignant way that I hadn't felt earlier. This is very novel to me, and something I'm trying to deconstruct for myself as a writer: McCann successfully builds momentum and tension but not through a conventional plot, but somehow through the arrangement of his pieces and what they reveal. It's incredible.
My favorite section in this whole book though is "Centavos". Simply beautiful. I also loved "This is the House that Horse Built" even though it's a very different voice. It's so heartbreaking despite its rawness. I think in terms of fitting into the bigger whole, "Tag" and "Etherwest" are weakest, although I enjoyed them immensely.
On a personal note - I have a strange obsession with 9/11. This book is not a 9/11 book, not in the strictest sense, and yet, it sort of is. McCann acknowledges that this book is the result of him trying to deal with 9/11. The final chapter sort of brings that in. He mentions in an essay at the end of the book that originally he wanted it to end tragically, and yet the more he wrote, the more redemptive it became. I think I appreciate the book for this, the opportunity for something wonderful and beautiful to arise despite a tragedy, and the pain of the world. There's something very true and yet hopeful about this. And yet it's lit in the backdrop of a world utterly changed. So there's some very complicated things he's examining here, and yet ultimately it seems to show that McCann, at least, is finding some hope for the future.
I'm very impressed with how McCann so effortlessly takes on the voices of all the various characters -- from an Irish man to an African American hooker to a Latino teen to an Upper East Side white woman... it's all very convincing, and each voice is unique. I'm also interested in how he chooses first person for some but third for others. McCann has gotten away with writing as several different races that he is NOT, and that truly impresses me. He has complete authority over all his characters.
I loved the writing in this book so much that it prompted me to find a pencil and go through and underline. This is major for me as normally I refuse to write in my books (unless I don't care for them). I tab the passages I like with post its, and type them up later. I hate writing in my books. But this is the first book in a long time that I've written in, because I could no longer help myself.
I liked so much in this book in terms of the passages, that it'd be impossible to get them all. But a selection:
Even the worst of what men did to one another didn't dampen Corrigan's beliefs. He might have been naive, but he didn't care; he said he'd rather die with his heart on his sleeve than end up another cynic.
This is not my life. These are not my cobwebs. This is not the darkness I was designed for.
You clip a van, you watch your life fade away.
How great are you, God? Save her. Pick her up off the pavement and dust the glass from her hair. Wash the fake blood off the ground. Save her here and now, put her mangled body back together again.
I had begun to think that perhaps leaving the scene of the crime was manslaughter, or at least some sort of felony, and now there was a second crime, hardly momentous, but it sickened me.
His hand brushed against mine. That old human flaw of desire.
He had fallen only once while training - once exactly, so he felt it couldn't happen again, it was beyond possibility. A single flaw was necessary anyway. In any work of beauty ther had to be one small thread left hanging.
Genius, they called it. But it was only genius if you thought of it first. A teacher told him that. Genius is lonely.
I'm such a fuck-up. No one's a bigger fuck-up than me. No one's gonna know that, though. That's my secret. I walk through the world like I own it. Watch this spot. Watch it curve.
And all of a sudden - right there, looking out over Central Park - I got a longing for my daughter like nothing else before. Jazzlyn was eight or nine then. I wanted just to hold her in my arms. It's no less love if you're a hooker, it's no less love at all.
-- pg. 213
He said to me once that most of the time people use the word love as just another way to show off they're hungry. The way he said it went something like: Glorify their appetites.
I don't know who God is but if I meet Him anytime soon I'm going to get Him in the corner until He tells me the truth.
I'm going to slap Him stupid and push Him around until He can't run away. Until He's looking up at me and then I'll get Him to tell me why He done what He done to me and what He done to Corrie and why do all the good ones die and where is Jazzlyn now and why she ended up there and how He allowed me to do what I done to her.
He's going to come along on His pretty white cloud with all His pretty little angels flapping their pretty white wings and I'm gonna out and say it formal: Why the fuck did you let me do it, God?
And He's gonna drop His eyes and look to the ground and answer me. And if He says Jazz ain't in heaven, if He says she didn't make it through, He's gonna get himself an ass-kicking. That's what He's gonna get.
An ass-kicking like none He ever got before.
When I was walking back out the courtyard to the pen I felt like someone came and carved my heart out, then put it walking in front of me. That's what I thought - there's my heart going right out in front of me, all on its own, slick with blood.
I gave Jazzlyn a bath once. She was just a few weeks old. Skin shining. I looked at her and thought she gave birth to the word beautiful. I wrapped her in a towel and promised her she'd never go on the stroll.
New York kept going forward precisely because it didn't give a good goddamn about what it had left behind.
The thing about love is that we come alive in bodies not our own.
I told him that I loved him and that I'd always love him and I felt like a child who throws a centavo into a fountain and then she has to tell someone her most extraordinary wish even though she knows that the wish should be kept secret and that, in telling it, she is quite probably losing it. He replied that I was not to worry, that the penny could come out of the fountain again and again and again.
I know already that I will return to this day whenever I want to. I can bid it alive. Preserve it. There is a still point where the present, the now, winds around itself, and nothing is tangled. The river is not where it begins or ends, but right in the middle point, anchored by what ha happened and what is to arrive. You can close your eyes and there will be a light snow falling in New York, and seconds later you are sunning upon a rock in Zacapa, and seconds later still you are surfing through the Bronx on the strength of your own desire. There is no way to find a word to fit around this feeling. Words resist it. Words give it a pattern it does not own. Words put it in time. They freeze what cannot be stopped. Try to describe the taste of a peach. Try to describe it. Feel the rush of sweetness: we make love.
He told me once that there was no better faith than a wounded faith and sometimes I wonder if that is what he was doing all along -- trying to wound his faith in order to test it -- and I was just another stone in the way of his God.
That was the sort of everyday love I had to learn to contend with: if you grow up with it, it's hard to think you'll ever match it. I used to think it was difficult for children of folks who really loved each other, hard to get out from under that skin because sometimes it's just so comfortable you don't want to have to develop your own.
I gave them all the truth and none of the honesty.
Some people think love is the end of the road, and if you're lucky enough to find it, you stay there. Other people say it just becomes a cliff you drive off, but most people who've been around awhile know it's just a thing that changes day by day, and depending on how much you fight for it, you get it, or you hold on to it, or you lose it, but sometimes it's never even there in the first place.
Every time a branch of mine got to being a decent size, that wind just came along and broke it.
I guess this is what marriage is, or was, or could be. You drop the mask. You allow the fatigue in. You lean across and kiss the years because they're the things that matter.
A man high in the air while a plane disappears, it seems, into the edge of the building. One small scrap of history meeting a larger one. As if the walking man were somehow anticipating what would come later. The intrusion of time and history. The collision point of stories. We wait for the explosion but it never occurs. The plane passes, the tightrope walker gets to the end of the wire. Things don't fall apart.
But she likes the fact that he lights up and lets the smoke blow in her direction, that it will get in her hair, that she will own the scent of it later.
It used to bother her terribly, as a teenager, that her mother and grandmother had worked the streets. She thought it might rebound on her someday, that she would find herself too much in love with love.
Listening to these people is like listening to trees - sooner or later the tree is sliced open and the watermarks reveal their age.
The only thing worth grieving over, she said, was that sometimes there was more beauty in this life than the world could bear.
(From an author's essay at the end)
A book is completed only when it is finished by the reader. This is the intimate privilege of art. In fact, it's the intimate privilege of being alive.