The Hero Brush

Edmund Gordon

  • TransAtlantic by Colum McCann
    Bloomsbury, 298 pp, £18.99, May 2013, ISBN 978 1 4088 2937 0

Colum McCann has described Jim Crace as ‘quite simply, one of the great writers of our time’, Aleksandar Hemon as ‘quite frankly, the greatest writer of our generation’, and Nathan Englander as ‘quite simply, one of the very best we have’. He has called Emma Donoghue ‘one of the great literary ventriloquists’ and John Boyne ‘one of the great craftsmen in contemporary literature’. Gerard Donovan reminds him of ‘other great writers, not least Knut Hamsun, Franz Kafka and … Bernhard Schlink’. McCann is the high priest of high praise, always handy with a blessing. But his easy way with superlatives means that when he wants to pay a special tribute – to suggest that a writer is even better than Nathan Englander – he tends to lapse into mumbo-jumbo. Edna O’Brien is ‘the necessary edge of who we are … a riverrun writer, bringing us back and propelling us forward’. Don DeLillo’s Point Omega is ‘the one that takes the skin away, that sings at the deep raw edge’. I had read dozens of McCann’s blurbs before I’d read any of his novels: I doubted his ability to compose a meaningful sentence. He seems now and then aware of this danger, and has talked about the ‘necessity’ of supplying blurbs: ‘They’re not even designed for readers because I think most people see through the bullshit factor. They are designed more for bookshops and just helping to get the books on the shelf … But again, I understand the necessity.’

His talk of necessity is also part of the bullshit factor, unless he believes that bookshops require his imprimatur before they’ll stock novels by O’Brien or DeLillo. McCann’s tendency to go gooey over things – ‘the miracle of the actual’, as one of his narrators has it – is just as much a feature of his novels. They’re usually centred on an obviously brilliant real life achievement: the construction of the New York subway system (‘a fusion of ecstasy and danger’) in This Side of Brightness (1998); the dancing of Nureyev (‘a thing of wonder … pureness moving’) in Dancer (2003); Philippe Petit’s tightrope walk between the towers of the World Trade Center (‘an enduring moment, the man alone against scale, still capable of myth’) in Let the Great World Spin, which won the National Book Award in 2009. The lyricism of these redemptive metaphors pervades the books, and whatever upsets the characters face – heartbreak, violence, loss – are washed away by the tides of ecstasy, pureness or myth.

McCann moved from Dublin to New York in 1994 with the stated ambition of writing ‘the great Irish-American novel’, and he found his formula early on. In TransAtlantic the number of celebratory images has multiplied. The first half of the book is a Greatest Hits of historical journeys between North America and Ireland, beginning with the first non-stop transatlantic flight, made in 1919 by John Alcock and Arthur Brown. McCann reconstructs the perils of the journey, the freak weather and mechanical trouble, as well as the ‘genius and magic’ needed to see them through. The chapter is high on technical detail and period slang (plenty of Great Scotts and Tally-hos) but low on any clear sense of the two main characters. While it’s interesting that the first transatlantic flight was made ‘without a gyroscope’ and with ‘scribbled notes and gestures’ as the only means of communication between pilot and navigator, our sense of their achievement isn’t much enhanced by McCann’s telling us that it’s ‘a human victory over war, the triumph of endurance over memory’ or by his gushing descriptions of the landscapes they pass over.

A different problem faces the next chapter, which is about Frederick Douglass, the American slave turned orator and abolitionist, on his first tour of Ireland in 1845. Again, the prose works to establish a sense of awe, but McCann could probably have taken our admiration for granted. There’s no need for him to stir up the bombast:

It struck him: the sheer surprise of being here. A carpenter, a caulker of ships, a man of the fields. To have come such a distance. To have left behind his wife, his beloved children. To hear the sound of his shoes striking the floor. The only moving shoes in a roomful of men. His voice had now become his hands: he understood what it meant to be made flesh. An energy moved through him. He cleared his throat, but held back a moment … He would wait to unleash his fury.

We get it. The rousing cadences and biblical imagery: Douglass is more than a little Christ-like. He’s all self-assurance and intellectual grandeur, though he is ‘not beyond laughing at himself’; and while his priority is ‘to help crush slavery through peaceful moral persuasion’, McCann shows that his sympathies are wide-ranging. Although he witnessed the Irish Famine, the real Douglass was curiously quiet on the subject; McCann has him arranging for the burial of a dead baby, and wishing he could do more. He is moved by the plight of the starving peasants: ‘The children looked like remnants of themselves. Spectral … Many of them had sores on their faces. None had shoes. He could see the structures of them through their skin. The bony residue of their lives.’ He is moved by the countryside: ‘Douglass knew what chaos lay down there, what desires, what fevers. Yet it was immense with beauty.’ He is moved by the people he meets: ‘Lily nodded and pulled the shawl tight down over her head. What thoughts trembled there? What fierceness had brought her here?’ All the heroic bluster and lachrymose wonderment make for one of the most insufferable characters I’ve ever encountered. Luckily the members of the Royal Dublin Society don’t see it that way: ‘They applauded quietly when he walked into the room. His youth. His poise. They leaned in close to secure his immediate confidence … approval sallied round the room.’

The third and final story in this part of the novel is about the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, and its central figure is Senator George Mitchell, who gets an even thicker dollop from the hero brush. McCann emphasises that Mitchell received no salary for his part in the peace talks, and that his role was ‘unasked-for’, but that when the responsibility fell to him he rose manfully to meet it. Here is a thoroughly modest politician (‘he could forget himself, dissolve and allow everyone else a sense of their own importance … Nothing false or politic about it. It was simply the way he went about things’) and an astonishingly considerate man. Leaving New York, he slips his driver tickets to a baseball game; seeing a young woman at the airport, ‘he recalls her name though he has only met her twice.’ Even the airline staff ‘have a fondness for him, his quietness, his humility’. But Mitchell can be a bruiser: news comes in of a sectarian murder, and he vows that ‘nothing will derail us now. We have come too far. Enough is enough. No surrender. We own that dictum now. It is ours. No. Surrender.’

Perhaps the real Mitchell does have all these qualities, but if he also has flaws they’re of no interest to McCann, who in his acknowledgments thanks ‘none other than George and Heather Mitchell themselves – they had the great grace to allow me to try to imagine my way into their world.’ He imagines himself far enough into it to give Mitchell a liking for very sugary tea and an ‘inability to say no’ (both of which foibles he also gives to Douglass). McCann’s account manages about as much intimacy with its subject as the average Hollywood biopic. It even uses the familiar multiplex tropes, right down to the family the hero is forced to neglect (‘His son is just five months old now, and he can count on just four hands the amount of days he has spent with him. How many hours has he sat in the stark chambers listening to men argue about a single comma, or the placement of a period, when all he wanted was to return to the surprise of his very young child?’) and the final, joyful reunion (‘He will softly key open the door and ghost through the room, across the carpet, into the bedroom, catch them sleeping, a noontime nap … Her body long and slim and quiet against the sheets. The baby against her … Easter Sunday. Crawl into bed beside them … Waken them to laughter’). The celluloid atmosphere of Mitchell’s story extends even to the historical context. The Troubles are evoked through glib checklists of atrocities, a bloody and blurry montage to set up the activities of the leading man:

So many murders arrive out of the blue. The young Catholic woman with the British soldier slumped over her child, a hiss of air from the bullet wound in his back. The man in the taxi with the cold steel at his neck. The bomb left outside the barracks in Newtownards. The girl in Manchester thrown twenty feet in the air, her legs separating from her as she flew. The 47-year-old woman tarred and feathered and left tied to a lamp post on the Ormeau Road. The postman blinded by the letter bomb. The teenager with a six-pack of bullet holes in his knees, his ankles, his elbows.

McCann allows Mitchell a few words of sub-DeLilloish profundity about the purpose of stories like these: ‘We prefigure our futures by imagining our pasts.’ But do we prefigure our futures by using the techniques of fiction to touch up the gloss on celebrities?

‘I began wondering why I was suddenly obsessed with these famous men,’ McCann told an interviewer. ‘Where were the women?’ Apparently not in any of the history books he was reading, so he decided to invent them: Alcock and Brown encounter a journalist and her photographer daughter in Newfoundland on the eve of their flight; Douglass impresses a maid at his Dublin lodgings and she runs away to America. These women are marginal figures in the first part of the novel, but in the second part they move into the foreground, where a family resemblance between them becomes apparent: Lily Duggan, the maid, turns out to be the mother of Emily Ehrlich, the journalist. The life stories of both women are sketched, along with those of Emily’s daughter Lottie, who marries an Irishman in 1929 and moves to Belfast, of their daughter Hannah and of her son Tomas.

None of them has it easy. Nursing the wounded during the American Civil War, Lily sees her own son dragged in among the dead; later she loses two more sons along with her husband in a farming accident. Emily is abandoned by Lottie’s father. Tomas is shot dead in 1978 by the ‘UVF or IRA or UFF or INLA or whatever other species of idiot was around at the time’. This rerouting of the novel’s course through history – the shift in focus from victors to victims – comes with a less grandiose tone. The use of period detail is suddenly freer; the descriptions are more atmospheric. Lily’s crossing takes eight weeks, and then

New York appeared like a cough of blood. The sun was going down behind the warehouses and tall buildings. She saw men on the wharfside in the ruin of themselves. A man barked questions. Name. Age. Birthplace. Speak up, he said. Speak up, goddamnit. She was sprayed with lice powder and allowed entry. Lily jostled her way along the waterfront among the stevedores, police officers, beggars. A stench rose up from the oily harbour … Her heart shuddered in her thin dress. She walked the streets, terrified of thieves. Her shoes were filthy with human waste. She clutched her bonnet tight. Rain fell. Her feet blistered.

Blood and shit, lice powder and blistered feet: the main difference between the two parts of TransAtlantic is that in the second McCann dials down the reverence and allows his characters moments of indignity. He even starts letting them be a bit bad. Emily has to contribute anonymously to the first paper she works on, in which women’s names are only allowed to appear in the society columns; when the editor knocks her up, she blackmails him into allowing her to write under her own initials. Other members of her family have flashes of real nastiness. Travelling to St Louis, Lily sees ‘Negroes on the streets’ and feels ‘a dislike move through her’; Hannah tracks down the girl Tomas was dating before he died and declares her ‘a vulgar little hussy’. These spurts of bile render everyone a bit more human than they are in the waxwork display of the first part. Several scenes even quicken a bit of sympathy. Here Lily finds her two young sons crushed by a collapsing sheet of ice:

Some laughter rolled from him. She bent down towards him. Some laughter again. Oh. Benjamin. Oh. She grabbed the back of his head but it lolled. She shook him. Get up, get up, you’re alive. His eyes were huge and surprised and unmoving. She rose into a crouch, pawed her way across the hard ground. Reached for Adam. She put her face against his lips. No breath. No warmth. More laughter; she was sure of it. But from where, whom? She heard it again, this time from its proper distance. Her chest heaved. From the house. The other children emerging from the cabin.

The novel suggests that the crucial moments in obscure lives – the moments that make all the others bearable – occur when people brush up against the great and the good. The women in the second half of TransAtlantic act as if they can only make sense of themselves in relation to famous men. The last chapter is set in 2011 and narrated by Hannah. She speaks about Lottie’s final years: ‘She so loved the story of Alcock and Brown, and often took out the photographs, showed them to us, went over them in intimate detail. So much of it was where her own life began.’ Lottie is 17 when she first appears in the novel, ‘sprightly, curious … quick to laugh’. It’s a strange idea that she requires the fleeting attention of two strangers to come to life, but maybe that’s the way a novelist obsessed with famous men sees the world.