This book has two stories and they work backward and forward to intersect. There is the story of Nathan Walker, a young black man, a sandhog digging the tunnel under the river in New York City early in the twentieth century. And there is the story of Treefrog, a homeless man who lives in those tunnels at the end of the twentieth century. Their connection and intersection is not a great twist, nor do I expect it was supposed to be, but it is interesting to watch these two stories come towards one another.
Nathan is young and strong and has his life ahead of him when he survives a freak accident while working in the tunnels. He goes on to fall in love with Eleanor and they marry, despite the overwhelming social pressure against a mixed-race couple in those days.
Treefrog has carved out a life of sorts for himself, one of survival mainly, beneath the city, but it is clear that he had a different life and a family once. McCann does, I think, a strong job of showing mental illness and its effects. Treefrog is easy to imagine because if you’ve spent time in a large city, you’ve witnessed homelessness. McCann doesn’t idealize him or pretty him up. There is filth and odour and violence in Treefrog. McCann humanizes him though, displaying the fine lines that exist between the housed and the homeless and how easily that can change.
I found the first part of the story the most interesting and I enjoyed watching Nathan and Eleanor’s relationship grow. I had to wonder at a white, Irish writer attempting to portray the struggles of a black man in America but perhaps that isn’t for me, a Caucasian Canadian woman, to question either. Nathan and Eleanor’s relationship isolates them both and has longterm repercussions for their family and this is an interesting topic that kind of fades away as the novel progresses.
Following Treefrog’s day-to-day survival is also interesting but there isn’t much plot in the Treefrog sections. We slowly learn how he ended up where he is but, as I said, that isn’t really surprising. There’s also a sort of relationship he forms with a woman but I didn’t find myself invested there.
This is one of McCann’s earlier novels and I think it’s clear that his writing has grown and strengthened. There are aspects of This Side of Brightness that I think he explores with better results in later novels, especially Let the Great World Spin but if you are a Colum McCann fan, you will probably find things to enjoy here as well.