From the author of Songdogs, a magnificent work of imagination and history set in the tunnels of New York City. In the early years of the century, Nathan Walker leaves his native Georgia for New York City and the most dangerous job in America. A sandhog, he burrows beneath the East River, digging the tunnel that will carry trains from Brooklyn to Manhattan.
Above ground, the sandhogs - black, white, Irish, Italian - keep their distance from each other until a spectacular accident welds a bond between Walker and his fellow diggers, a bond that will bless and curse the next three generations.
Years later, Treefrog, a homeless man driven below by a shameful secret, endures a punishing winter in his subway nest. In tones ranging from bleak to disturbingly funny, Treefrog recounts his strategies of survival: killing rats, scavenging for discarded soda cans, washing in the snow. Between Nathan Walker and Treefrog stretch 70 years of ill-fated loves and unintended crimes.
In a triumph of plotting, the two stories fuse to form a tale of family, race, and redemption that is as bold and fabulous as New York City itself. In This Side of Brightness, Colum McCann confirms his place in the front ranks of modern writers.
In the wake of the huge critical success garnered by Colum McCann’s seventh novel, Let the Great World Spin, there has been an uptick of interest in his earlier works, particularly including his third novel, This Side of Brightness. This novel displays the seedlings of many techniques that McCann would later develop into the text that won him a National Book Award, including most notably the interlocking stories of an intergenerational narrative. A tragedy woven out of the compelling literal underground of New York City, the novel gives clear evidence that recognition of McCann’s talent is overdue.
Voicing this testament to human sorrow and the possibility for redemption is two-time Audie Award finalist Joe Barrett. Barrett’s natural huskiness seeps into the fabric of the text, and he delivers an utterly credible portrayal of each branch of Nathan Walker’s sad family tree. Nathan left the South to dig subway tunnels, and when one of these tunnels inevitably collapses, Nathan’s lot is cast with an Irishman’s widow. This primary thread is pulled closer and closer to the other main story, which involves Treefrog, a man who lives in an abandoned subway tunnel. Barrett’s performance of Treefrog is especially solid, by turns pitifully frozen and achingly funny.
As the family line becomes clear, disaster hacks off one branch at a time. The fear of interracial coupling, the downward spiral of drug and alcohol addiction, and the trauma of child abuse all rear their ugly heads, reshaping these interdependent lives with all the fury of a runaway train. McCann marches inexorably toward Nathan Walker’s own death, the question of whether obsessive compulsive Treefrog can manage a life above ground hanging in the balance. Barrett manages to give distinctive voice to each of four generations, reaching across race and class to produce a wonderfully melancholy portrait of 70 years’ worth of life touched by the New York City subway system. This is a must-listen not just for fans of McCann’s later work, but also for anybody who rides the train. Megan Volpert
This Side of Brightness weaves historical fact with fictional truth, creating a remarkable tale of death, racism, homelessness--and yes, love--spanning four generations.... [T]he grimness of McCann's tale is leavened by the beauty of his prose and the intimations all through the book that, even on this side of darkness, redemption is possible." (Amazon.com review)
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