Deena Metzger’s “A Rain of Night Birds”

A Rain of Night Birds by Deena Metzger might well be one of the most important books written in this troubled century. I’ve known Deena and have been reading her novels, poetry, essays for over 40 years. But this one had an impact on me that I’m still struggling to articulate.  I’ll tell you this: since reading this novel, every time I’ve gone outside, I’ve been newly aware of the wind – its direction, force, temperature, texture. I’d not paid it much attention since the days, long-ago now, when I paddled a kayak in the Bay. Anyone who spends much time on the water quickly learns the life-and-death importance of wind and current.

deena-metzger1

Deena Metzger (Photo by Jessica Shokrian)

A Rain of Night Birds reminded me that such attention to the Earth is now essential at all times and is certainly a matter of life and death.

Deena has always embraced paradox. She gives new meaning to the  adage that the personal is political. In “Rain…” she explores the lives of two characters, Sandra Birdswell and Terrence Green, whose separate journeys have led them to recognize the inadequacy of conventional Western science to respond to planetary crisis.

Deena is the first  writer I’ve read who has managed to write  a novel that puts climate change front and center without making the reader despair and without falling into didacticism. Every moment of  “Rain…” is grounded in the lived experience of her characters.  (I’m using “climate change”  to stand for the terrifying consequences of so much human activity since the early Industrial Age.)

Both Sandra and Terrence are climatologists. He’s mixed-race – Native American and white. She’s the daughter of a white doctor whose formative years were spent in the Indian Health Service in the southwest. His closest friend is Hosteen Tseda,  an indigenous healer who becomes Sandra’s adopted uncle, teacher and mentor.

Sandra chooses to become a healer as well. But even as a child she understands that her calling is to heal the earth.

Years after she first meets Professor G – as Terrence likes to be called by his students – they become lovers and allies.  Both of them grew up without knowing their birth mothers. This shared absence in their histories contributes to the profound need they each feel to reconnect themselves to the Earth. Though they’re both scientists, their ties to indigenous culture with its very different ways of knowing informs, tempers and transforms their relationship to the natural world.

Summary and synopsis can only reduce what Deena has accomplished here. There’s no way to give a capsule description of these reluctant heroes without making them sound like two-dimensional icons. It’s their layered complexity and  enormous vitality that drives this novel.  This book is a kind of “dream-catcher.” Its elements work together lyrically, psychologically and spiritually to create the conditions in the reader’s heart in which wisdom itself might appear.

A Rain of Night Birds, novel, Purchase from Birchbark Books and Native Arts – http://birchbarkbooks.com/all-online-titles/a-rain-of-night-birds

Find out more about Deena Metzger

 

Why I Read

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trio

When I was four I read my first word aloud as I rode in our 1939 Buick whom my parents had named “Brenda.” The word was café but I pronounced it with a silent e, rhyming it with strafe or waif. It was 1949, the war was over and I had two loving parents who quickly and proudly corrected my pronunciation.

That same year, I began reading L. Frank Baum’s series of Oz books. I was too impatient to wait for my mother to find time to read them to me so I figured it out.

Along with breathing, eating, sleeping and going to the bathroom, reading is what I’ve spent most of my seventy-two years doing. I read all the Oz books, uncountable comic books, most every science fiction novel published between 1955 and 1962, all of Steinbeck, Dos Passos and Howard Fast (a mostly-forgotten left-wing writer of historical novels like Citizen Tom Paine) I read Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, James Michener, Lawrence Durrell, Mickey Spillane, Aldous Huxley, D.T. Suzuki and Jack Kerouac before graduating high school.

Reading was my escape from boredom and bullying, from loneliness and fear. It was my balm and inspiration. It was my mother’s most precious legacy.

U.Inscription

The inscription in my mother’s copy of Joyce’s Ulysses, given to her by a man I never met, five years before I was born.

In college, I read Sartre, Camus, St. Exupéry, Racine, Moliere and others, in French.

So far this year, 2017, I’ve read several books about Buddhism, two novels by George Eliot, Don Quixote, Six novels by Ursula K. LeGuin and four by Octavia Butler. I loved them all. Or: I loved reading them all, even those books I may not have loved in themselves

These days I have a hard time getting out of bed in the morning. Maybe it’s part of aging; maybe it’s the medication I have to take since I had a couple of seizures in 2015. When I finally am able to rouse myself from the intermittent doze in which I nearly drown between the hours of nine and eleven AM, I rush to prepare my gluten-free steel-cut oatmeal and coffee with rice milk in order to begin reading. I read my current book or I read this week’s New Yorker or last Sunday’s New York Times. After an hour or so of crawling, running, leaping and swimming through a few thousand words, my morning depression loses its grip and I can begin to inhabit my body.

This morning I finished reading You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie. It’s a memoir written in very short chapters, some of which are poems. The chapters dance circles around the life and death of Sherman’s mother, Lillian, on the Spokane reservation in Eastern Washington, land of no-more-salmon, ubiquitous radioactive waste, alcoholism and internalized oppression.

How can reading about such pain bring pleasure? Is it because Sherman’s stories of his painful childhood on the rez – the poverty, the bullying, the violent chaos, the twisted love – are specific, lived experiences that most humans go through to varying degrees?

I’m getting nervous as I write this. Compared to Sherman’s childhood, mine was edenic. Like all good progressives, I sure don’t want to appropriate another group’s oppression. But Sherman happens to be a fucking brilliant writer who invites everyone into his story. For instance:

After neurosurgery, I have learned that my brain is a boardinghouse where my waking consciousness rents one room with a hot plate and a black-and-white TV while the rest of the rooms are occupied by a random assortment of banshees, ghosts, mimes wearing eagle feathers, and approximately twelve thousand strangers who look exactly like me.

I haven’t had neurosurgery, though it was offered to me once. But I sure know that boarding house. Mine is occupied by rabbis, untranslated yiddish poets, old vaudevillians and my own twelve thousand imposters.

And that’s why I can never stop reading. How else could I understand the ways in which the inner life of a middle class, old, L.A.-born Jew can rhyme with the struggles and revelations of a fifty-something urban Indian writer?

Is it a tired truism to say that reading promotes empathy? Maybe so, but if my life of reading has even partly balanced the human tendancy to draw lines around one’s own race, gender, nationality, species, and place everyone else outside that imaginary circle and call them “other” or “enemy,” then I sing its praises. Reading taught me how to praise and You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me is as full of praise and honor songs as it is of lamentations. As in my life, I’m not sure which is which.

 

 

Outtakes from Who Was I? – Fundamental Uncertainty

In the process of rewriting my music-theatre piece, Who Was I?, I wrote a lot, exploring the geography of memory. As I get closer to performing the new version of the show, I’ve decided to post some of that writing. Read more about the piece by clicking here


The Buddha says that clinging to the idea of a fixed, unchanging, personal identity is the source of human suffering. We create and maintain the illusion of a permanent “self” in order to avoid the full experience of the “fundamental uncertainty, the groundlessness of being human.” (Pema Chödron, Living Beautifully, p 4)

So I can view my recent neurological episodes – auras, transient amnesia, seizures – as opportunities to experience that very uncertainty. The two times I emerged from oblivion with no memory of how I had come to be lying on the floor felt intensely groundless.

The second time I came back to awareness from a seizure, my wife and three paramedics were all telling me that I’d had a seizure. For several minutes, I could not figure out what that word, seizure, meant. I had no story to tell myself. That came later:

I was standing at the kitchen sink, washing some dishes. The dishwasher was open. That’s the last thing I remember before coming to on the floor with everyone telling me I’d had a seizure. I must have fallen on the open door of the dishwasher and then slid onto the floor. Now I’m in an ambulance on the way to the Marin General Hospital emergency room. But my consciousness still seems intermittent as if the movie I’m in had several random jump cuts and was being shown at an inconsistent speed.

A lot of spiritual teachers talk about the benefits of “dropping your story. ” About twenty years ago, not long after my mother died, I went to see Gangaji, an American woman who was a student of “Papaji” a self-arisen Indian mystic. At the time both Papaji and Gangaji were very popular among American spiritual seekers. Gangaji was very big on story-dropping. I raised my hand. “But I’m a storyteller,” I said, on the verge of tears, “I love stories!”

“Well, then,” she answered,”You’re just a sentimental old fool.” I’m even older now and still hopelessly tangled in story.

The difference is that I’m finally willing to consider that changing my attitude toward the stories might be a Good Thing.

I noticed, a couple years ago, that Gangaji had written a book calledHidden Treasure: Uncovering the Truth in your Life Story. I should read it, I guess. But my Buddhist teachers seem to be saying that the notion that there is anything “true” about one’s “life story” is, itself, suspect.

Perhaps this is the opposite of Alzheimer’s or amnesia, this flood of memories.

Continued in next post

Outtakes Continued: Memory Flood

I started making lists:

When I was two and a half years old, I learned to speak French fluently.

When I was five, on my first day in kindergarten, I cried and cried, breathlessly sobbing, “I want my mommy,”

When I was ten I dreamed that my father had died and become a bird perched on a telephone pole on Ventura Boulevard.

When I was eleven, on the first night in the desert town we’d moved to, I was so frightened by the large moths that kept flinging themselves against the window screens in that furnace of a night that I didn’t sleep at all.

When I was eleven I met a devoté of Edgar Cayce, a man in his thirties, who used “hypnosis” to put me into a “trance” in which I accessed my “past lives.” I couldn’t tell if I was making up all the things I said or not.

When I was eleven I read my first grown-up novel: The Shrinking Man by Richard Matheson

When I was eleven I acted in my first play, The Clown who Ran Away.

When I was fourteen I kissed a girl on the mouth for the first time while acting in a scene from The Importance of Being Earnest.

When I was fourteen my Aunt Eleanor taught me the guitar chords to Careless Love.

When I was fourteen, standing near a bank of lockers, a kid whose father was a cop, showed me a photo he had stolen. It showed the corpse of a man who had killed himself with a shotgun in his mouth. It didn’t look real.

When I was fourteen I imagined, for a few months, that I would become a rabbi when I grew up. i urged my secular parents to keep kosher. They didn’t.

When I was fourteen standing near a bank of lockers, a kid whose father was a cop, showed me a photo he had stolen. It showed a couple having sex. The man was naked except for a pair of wing-tip shoes – the kind my father wore. The woman was also naked and quite hairy. It looked too real.

When I was fifteen I heard a Ravi Shankar record for the first time and felt completely disoriented, unable to tell where the music began and ended.

When I was sixteen, at the start of my senior year, I discovered that I had become the tallest person in my high school, faculty included.

When I was sixteen, in home room, I refused to stand for the pledge of allegiance. The kid behind me pulled me upright by the collar of my shirt.

When I was sixteen I started smoking.

When I was seventeen my friend Betsy and I hot-wired her father’s 1939 Buick convertible and drove the deserted desert two-lane highways all night long.

When I was seventeen I got a small part in a professional play.

When I was nineteen I had sex and marijuana for the first time.

When I was nineteen I went to France for my third year of college.

When I was twenty I met a blind Algerian student in Bordeaux who, when I asked what it was like in Algeria, said, “Ça chie,” which means, literally, “It shits.”

When I was twenty, hitchhiking alone through Algeria, a small truck I was riding in had its windshield shattered by a large watermelon hurled from an oncoming car

When I was twenty one I got my first acting job on television.

When I was twenty one, at my draft board physical, I sat in my jockey shorts in front of an army psychiatrist who kept an unlit cigar stub in his mouth while asking me how I expected to amount to anything if I continued to use illegal drugs.

When I was twenty two I moved into a group house in Echo Park. My roommates smuggled large quantities of hashish from Lebanon, built a sauna in the laundry room, introduced me to intravenous cocaine and methedrine and to vegetarian cooking.

When I was twenty two I appeared as a “bachelor” contestant on The Dating Game, simply because, as a union actor, I’d receive a hundred dollars for a day’s work. A “starlet” was to choose one of us as her “date” on a whirlwhind trip to Bangcok. The “bachelors” were hidden behind a screen and the starlet had to bas her choice on the answers we’d each give to her questions. She asked us to “imitate you favorite hero.”   I was high on grass and speed and heard myself paraphrasing, in French, Jean-Paul Sartre. Something about “L’éxistence précède l’essence…” She picked me.

When I was twenty-three I was cast in the film, M*A*S*H.

When I was twenty-four, I read The Gates of the Forest by Elie Wiesel and understood how little I knew about brutality and despair.

When I was twenty five, a roommate said that I was the most selfish man she had ever met.

When I was twenty six I spent a day watching crows in the snow in Vancouver’s Stanley Park.

When I was thirty, I called a phone number I saw in an ad in an alternate newspaper from an institutionalized Jewish man who requested visitors. He asked me to bring him a pastrami sandwich. I said I would. I never did visit him.

When I was thirty-one I turned down a small role in Close Encounters of the Third Kind in order to tour the country with a political theatre ensemble.

When I was thirty one Joseph Chaikin invited me to join an experimental workshop he was launching in New York.

When I was thirty three I started Traveling Jewish Theatre with Naomi Newman and Albert Greenberg.

When I was thirty nine I stopped using alcohol and marijuana.

When I was forty one I stopped smoking cigarettes.

When I was forty two I got married.

When I was forty five I walked from Mill Valley to Bolinas and back.

When I was forty nine I sang to my mother as she took her last breaths. Later that year I made a solo performance that told the story of her dying.

When I was fifty I woke up one morning seeing double, the result of a small tangle of redundant capillaries in my brainstem.

When I was fifty one I moved my father into a dementia-care facility

When I was fifty three I sat with my father’s lifeless body and sketched his face

When I was fifty four I took up scuba diving, completing 300 dives in kelp forests and coral reefs during the next seven years.

When I was fifty five I adapted the Israeli novel, See Under: Love, for the theatre.

When I was fifty five I met my first grandson, River, born at the turn of the millennium.

When I was fifty nine I had open-heart surgery to repair a prolapsed mitral valve.

When I was sixty two I played Willie Loman in TJT’s Death of a Salesman

When I was sixty-nine I experienced thirty minutes of “transient global amnesia” and began developing a music-theatre piece about memory and aging.

When I was seventy I had a seizure.  I lost consciousness, fell and tore a ligament in my thumb. Six weeks later, I performed my music-theatre piece about memory and aging for friends. Two months later, I had a second seizure.

Read more about Who Was I?  by clicking here

Welcomed to L.A.

morro

I’m starting to write this on my way back home from Los Angeles in Morro Bay, a lovely town on Highway One  halfway between the northern and southern termini of this trip.

I want to mark what feels like a transformational few days. This was the first trip to L.A. I’ve made in over ten years, as far as I can figure. Since I cancelled my trip to China in March last year, I’d not travelled further than the East Bay. But, having been invited by the UCLA Cinema and Television Archive to participate in a tribute to the late filmmaker Robert Altman, I decided to stir myself and drive down to my former home town.

MASH

My former home town and site of my former career in “The Industry” as it’s called. That’s the movie/television industry, of course, which is in the process of becoming something more like the streaming-or-downloadable/on-demand/digital-content-industry. Before making his breakthrough film, M*A*S*H, Robert Altman had been an iconoclastic director of TV shows such as Combat and The Whirlybirds. A World War Two Air Force pilot from Kansas City, he was notorious for his outspokenness and rebellion against any cinematic conventions that he thought were clichéd or pointless. He’d been fired at least once from Universal Studios when he got hired by 20th Century Fox in early 1969 to direct the  irreverent comedy based on a novel about American combat surgeons in Korea in the fifties.

that's me (at age 24) on the far left.

A still from M*A*S*H (the movie).  That’s me (at age 24) on the far left.  Donald Sutherland is driving the jeep, Tom Skerritt is in the passenger seat and René Auberjonois, as Father Mulcahy, is blessing the jeep.

After casting three young up-and-coming actors as the leads – Donald Sutherland, Elliot Gould and Tom Skerritt and Robert Duvall, Sally Kellerman, René Auberjonois and Roger Bowen in supporting roles, he began looking for actors who had improvisational experience to form an ensemble of surgeons, nurses and orderlies who would populate the MASH unit (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) that gave the film its title.

When I met him, Robert asked me about my work with The Committee, the San Francisco improv group that had started a second company in L.A. in 1968. I was actually working with a group (with the late-sixties name, “The Synergy Trust,”) that had grown out of the workshops in improvisation that members of the Committee were teaching. A couple of days later, my agent told me I was hired.

That began a two-year, three-film association with Altman that included Brewster McCloud and McCabe and Mrs. Miller, which got me to Vancouver where I wound up living for a year. (That story needs a post of its own).

I took two days to drive down for the MASH screening, on the slower  highway 101 – the coast route – rather than trying to make it in one day on the brutal interstate 5 through the central valley. No question: it was the right choice.

Judy Chaikin

One of my oldest friends in L.A., Judy Chaikin, who had been in the Synergy Trust and is now an accomplished documentary film maker, invited me to stay at her vintage 1936 Studio City ranch house. I got there on Friday and was amazed by the abundance of olive and citrus trees, roses and wisteria surrounding her house. I hadn’t been there for nearly forty years, and in those days, I never paid much attention to landscapes or gardens. After I moved to the Bay Area,  China Galland, whom I married in 1987, taught me about such things.

Judy Chaikin's Wisteria

Judy Chaikin’s Wisteria

As soon as I arrived, Judy and I began a long, rambling conversation about the old days, improv, music, people, film, family and theatre that lasted until I left on Monday morning. Judy had been married for many years to her high school sweetheart, Jules, a musician, music contractor and producer who had worked with pretty much everyone in the L.A. music, TV and film worlds for more than fifty years. Though he died two years ago, his presence still permeates the house.

Shortly after his death, Judy completed a monumental documentary film called The Girls in the Band about the dozens of great women jazz instrumentalists who were central to the music in the twenties, thirties, forties and fifties but who have mostly been forgotten in that male-dominated world. It’s a world that Judy knows thoroughly. Using rare archival footage and new interviews with exceptional musicians, The Girls in the Band restores a vital part of American cultural history to our collective memory.

Judy also spent an afternoon listening to me play some of the songs I’ve been working on.  She gave me some valuable feedback of exactly the kind I need as I continue developing the solo music-theatre piece most of you already know about (from my last blog post).

Aftermash

The MASH screening was a new sort of experience for me. Now that I am truly a Hollywood outsider, I felt less alienated from the scene than I used to. Having nothing to prove at this stage of my life, having no ambition to be noticed by a producer, agent, star or casting director was a relief.

The former colleagues from MASH – actors Sally Kellerman, Tom Skerritt, Elliot Gould and Fred Williamson, editor Danford Green, Robert Altman’s son, Michael, and his widow, Catherine, were gracious and warm as was Shannon Kelley and the other Archive staff members.

from l: Elliot Gould, Tom Skerritt, Sally Kellerman and me

from l: Elliot Gould, Tom Skerritt, Sally Kellerman and me

I hadn’t seen the film in its entirety since its release in 1970. I was humbled to realize that I had been part of a project that did much to bring a formerly marginalized esthetic and political sensibility into the American mainstream. MASH was an unapologetic satire of U.S. military leadership. It used “Korea” as a transparent stand-in for the war in Vietnam. Its surprising success contributed to the confidence of the growing anti-war movement. Moreover it introduced a new, highly layered style of cinematic narrative to the world.

The Last Supper from MASH. I'm second from left.

The Last Supper from MASH. I’m second from left.

On Sunday and Monday I spent time with more close friends of my youth – Harvey Perr, Burke and Peggy Byrnes, Norbert and Tandy Weisser and Melissa Converse Ewing. Between these affectionate reunions and constantly coming across buildings, streets and names from the first 37 years of my life, I experienced a near-continuous flood of flashbacks, living in several times simultaneously.

Bill Mumy and Sunshine

The culmination of the trip was the extended jam Bill Mumy and I had on Monday afternoon. Bill is one of the most unusual people I’ve ever known. When we met he was nineteen years old and I was twenty-eight.

With Bill Mumy

With Bill Mumy

I had been living in Vancouver for a year, where I’d made my first original piece of theatre (Crow, based on a poem-cycle by Ted Hughes). Then I was cast in a TV movie, Sunshine, adapted from the journals of Jacqueline Helton, a young, single mother who was dying of cancer. It was the first “disease-of-the-week” TV movie, though I believe it transcended the genre it’s credited with spawning. I was cast in one of the more unusual and interesting roles I ever did on TV: a drop-out-rabbinical-student-guitar-player who was part of a three-man acoustic folk-rock group fronted by the guy who winds up marrying the single mom (who’s dying). My character performed a wedding ceremony, in Hebrew, in the heroine’s hospital room. Bill Mumy played the other guy in the band. Cliff de Young was the romantic lead. Bill and I were the comic relief and Bill was the musical center of it all. The cast included a lot of gifted actors like Meg Foster and Brenda Vaccaro. It was produced by George Eckstein, one of the most intelligent and generous people I’ve ever met in the world of commercial TV, and directed by the pioneering TV director Joe Sargent.

Meg Foster, me, Brenda Vaccaro during the "Sunshine" shoot in Vancouver

Meg Foster, me, Brenda Vaccaro during the “Sunshine” shoot in Vancouver

Bill might have only been nineteen, when we met, but he was already  the best all-around musician I’d ever met. He played guitar, banjo, harmonica, piano and sang beautifully. He also was – and is – a terrific arranger and producer.

Maybe one of the reasons we immediately bonded was that I was only vaguely familiar with his previous identity as the child star of the iconic TV series Lost in Space. Bill started working on TV when he was six, in 1960. He went on to play major roles in Papillon with Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman and in Stanley Kramer’s Bless the Beasts and the Children. I simply knew him as a fellow guitar picker who shared my love of traditional music and quirky lyrics.

To our surprise, Sunshine, the TV movie, was followed by Sunshine, the TV series, which took up the story of the young widower raising his daughter and still struggling to make a living as a “folk-rock” musician. Though never made explicit, the show hinted that the hero, still played by Cliff de Young, was an American draft-resister living in Vancouver, where both the first movie and the series were set.  I made a point of making my character’s Jewish identity as richly detailed as I could and found ways to use a Yiddish expression or two in almost every episode. When Bill and I pitched an idea for an episode to George, he liked it and even hired us to write it.

The series was cancelled after thirteen weeks, though it had been lauded by critics. The ratings sucked  and that was all that concerned NBC. Unlike MASH, Sunshine was not able to pull the “mainstream” audience into its unconventionally populated world.

But the following year, we had another surprise when NBC ordered a second TV movie as a Christmas special. Two fine New York actors Pat Hingle and Eileen Heckart played Cliff’s parents and Barbara Hershey played his old flame.

During and after the Sunshine gigs, Bill and I played a lot of music together, sometimes on camera or in the studio (we made an “original soundtrack album” for the first TV movie), but most enjoyably, on our own. We collaborated on a few songs and I learned an enormous amount from young Bill.

I hadn’t seen him in over twenty years when we got together. I went to his house with my guitar, he took his Martin off its hook on his guitar-filled wall and we played old and new songs for each other. Bill remembered parts of several of our old collaborations, more than I did. His new songs are even lovelier that the old ones and have a depth that comes from many more years of living, marriage and parenting.

Driving home, I listened to several of Bill’s CDs which are gems of contemporary acoustic songwriting , singing, playing and producing. Reconnecting with Bill has been a heartwarming and inspiring gift.

Coda:

As I drove west on the Richmond Bridge, crossed the Bay to Marin County and caught sight of Mount Tamalpais, the Randy Newman song, Feels Like Home, began to play. My iPhone was on “shuffle.” Strangely I only have two Randy Newman tracks on the device, though I’ve loved his music since the sixties.

Mount Tamalpais seen from the Richmond Bridge

Mount Tamalpais seen from the Richmond Bridge

I couldn’t believe the universe’s shameless sentimentality in coming up with that song at the very moment I saw the mountain that has become, over the last 34 years, the emblem of “home” for me. The chorus of the song says: “…Feels like home to me / Feels like I’m all the way back where I belong ...” And, yes, it did bring tears to my eyes.

 

Review: Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

Petit

“… even though the book takes place primarily in 1974 – so much of it began for me very shortly after 9/11. I had read Paul Auster’s collection of essays The Red Notebook, where he wrote about Philippe Petit scribbling his name across the sky between the World Trade Centre towers. Then – when the towers came down in 2001 – the tightrope walk popped out of my memory, one of those eureka moments, and I thought, What a spectacular act of creation, to have a man walking in the sky, as opposed to the act of evil and destruction of the towers disintegrating. I certainly wasn’t alone in this. It was almost part of a collective historical memory. The same image ran true for a number of people, not least of course Philippe Petit himself. And I wanted to write a song of my adopted city as well, and maybe to confront some things that were on my mind about issues of faith and recovery and belonging.”

– Colum McCann,
from an interview conducted by Bret Anthony Johnston.

I’d been hearing about Colum McCann for a while but hadn’t read any of his novels. Then, at a friend’s house, I saw a copy of Let the Great World Spin, winner of the 2009 National Book Award for fiction.  I asked my friend if I could borrow it. He’s one of my few male friends who has as much love for fiction as I do and probably reads even more than I. He has given me many books over the years, though sometimes his tastes run ahead of my own into the works of writers I find rather difficult and opaque, like Boltano.

I started reading Let the Great World Spin as soon as I got home. I didn’t devour it the way I once read novels as compelling as this one. I don’t know whether to blame my changing reading habits on the internet or on old age, but I don’t seem to be able to read for hours at a time as I used to. There were even some days when I didn’t pick the book up, though I never went very long without thinking about it.

The book’s central image is the 1974 walk by funambulist Philippe Petit on a cable suspended between the top floors of the World Trade Center towers.  He used no harnesses, nets or safety gear of any sort. He and his support team went to great lengths to get themselves through the building’s security, rig the cable (an archer was involved) and remain in the building until the following dawn when Petit began walking. His walk was, by all accounts, flawless, elegant, breathtaking. It excited the imagination of thousands – perhaps millions – of New Yorkers who stopped, wherever they were, and watched a man walking in the air a quarter-mile above.

McCann begins the book with a three page prologue describing the walk and returns to it several times later, either directly or through the peripheral vision of the several characters who all witness it. McCann never names Petit,  a choice that reinforces the walker’s distance from the other characters whose lives we come to know intimately. Yet, McCann’s funambulist is intensely corporeal, never an abstraction, a symbol, or a literary device. Here’s how McCann gives us the beginning of the walk:

One foot on the wire – his better foot, the balancing foot. First he slid his toes, then his sole, then his heel. The cable nestled between his big and second toes for grip. His slippers were thin, the soles made of buffalo hide… He played out the aluminum pole along his hands. The coolness rolled across his palm. The pole was fifty-five pounds, half the weight of a woman. She moved on his skin like water…

His body loosened and took on the shape of the wind. The play of the shoulder could instruct the ankle. His throat could soothe his heel and moisten the ligaments at his ankle. A touch of the tongue against the teeth could relax the thigh. His elbow could brother his knee. If he tightened his neck he could feel it correcting in his hip. At his center he never moved. He thought of his stomach as a bowl of water. If he got it wrong, the bowl would right itself. 

He felt for the curve of the cable with the arch and then sole of his foot. A second step and a third. He went out beyond the first guy lines, all of him in synch.

petit 2Within seconds he was pureness moving, and he could do anything he liked. He was inside and outside his body at the same time, indulging in what it meant to belong to the air, no future, no past, and this gave him the offhand vaunt to his walk. He was carrying his life from one side to the other. On the lookout for the moment when he wasn’t even aware of his breath.

The core reason for it all was beauty. Walking was a divine delight. Everything was rewritten when he was up in the air. New things were possible with the human form. It went beyond equilibrium.

He felt for a moment uncreated. Another kind of awake.

All the characters are struggling to awaken or to resist awakening. We meet the first  two characters as young boys being raised by a single, devoted mother in Dublin: John Corrigan, called simply Corrigan or Corrie, already in a constant dialogue with God, and his brother, Ciaran, who tells their story.  Corrigan becomes a radical Catholic monk and ends up in the Bronx, ministering to a group of African-American prostitutes who are on “the stroll” beneath the Major Deegan Expressway, across from his housing project. Missing his brother, Ciaran follows him to New York where Corrigan has become a sort of patron saint to the hookers, giving them round the clock use of his apartment for showers and self-care.  Corrigan, in spite of his vows, has fallen in love with a Columbian woman with whom he works at a nursing home. Later, in a section written in her voice, we experience that all-encompassing love from within the relationship, revealing everything that Ciaran struggles to understand about his brother.

Throughout the book, the narrative is handed off from character to character as McCann’s layered edifice gains depth and power.  Corrigan and Jazzlyn, an eighteen year old hooker he watches over, will not live past the first section of the novel. Yet, like the twin towers themselves, the space they occupied continues to shadow the rest of the book.

The other characters, whether they understand it or not, are affected by them. But to simply enumerate these connections does McCann’s talent a disservice. The book is in no way schematic. The relationships between characters are unforced and asymmetrical; as messy as life.

“Then came the moment when I thought that I could go backwards in time to talk about the present: that’s when the tightrope walk came in. And the deeper I got into the novel the more I began to see that it was, hopefully, about an act of recovery. Because the book comes down to a very anonymous moment in the Bronx when two little kids are coming out of a very rough housing project, about to be taken away by the state, and they get rescued by an act of grace. That’s it, not much maybe, but everything to me. And there’s hardly a line in the novel about 9/11, but it’s everywhere if the reader wants it to be. I trust my readers. They will get from a book what they want. It can be read in many different ways. In this sense I hope it works on an open poetic level: make of this child what you will.”

– Colum McCann,
from an interview conducted by Bret Anthony Johnston.

It’s worth noting that three of the most important characters are black women. Two of them narrate their respective sections of the book.  First, there’s Tillie, , the daughter and mother of prostitutes, a heroin addict, and, thanks to an eccentric Middle-Eastern client in her early days as a high-priced uptown call girl,  a reader of Rumi. Her daughter is the eighteen year old Jazzlyn, already a mother herself. Tillie narrates a long chapter from jail on Riker’s Island after Jazzlyn and Corrigan’s death. I’ve not been able to shake a certain discomfort with this section of the book. Interestingly, I had no discomfort at all with the chapter voiced by Gloria, an educated black woman from Missouri who is a neighbor of Corrigan’s and plays an important role in the second half of the novel. I was able to accept Gloria as a unique human who happened to be African-American, who was shaped, as we all are, by her experiences, and yet, like all of us, could not be reduced to her socio-ethno-economic profile.  So my discomfort isn’t merely a response to a white author writing in the voice of a non-white character.  After a lot of reflection, I’ve come to see my discomfort with Tillie as a sign of McCann’s uncompromising integrity. To follow McCann into Tillie’s world of sexual slavery, addiction and violence should not be comfortable.  Tillie can’t forgive herself for not preventing her daughter from becoming exactly what she once was, a heroin addicted, teen-age mother who sells her body. Though McCann never lets us lose sight of Tillie’s boundless love for her daughter and granddaughters, her internalized self-hatred remains devastating. For it to be anything less, would be false and sentimental.

As uncompromisingly bleak as Tillie’s chapter is, the book as a whole is anything but depressing. It fully earns its vision of reconciliation and recovery. Perhaps stories of descent, purgation and redemption are part of McCann’s Catholic spiritual and literary DNA. Dante’s spirit hovers nearby. We recognize that most of the characters are terribly lost in a “selva oscura,” Dante’s “dark wood,” and we can’t help but think of angels when McCann tells us about the man walking in the air. But in McCann’s cosmology, guilt and punishment are not imposed by a judging God. They’re part of the human story. I don’t think one has to be a believer to see the world humans have made as a fallen world, whether one bases that sense on the hundred years’ war, the ubiquity of slavery through most of our history, the holocaust or 9/11.

McCann has Ciaran describe Corrigan’s “theology” on the twentieth page of the book:

What Corrigan wanted was a fully believable God, one you could find in the grime of the everyday. The comfort he got from the hard, cold truth – the filth, the war, the poverty – was that life could be capable of small beauties. He wasn’t interested in the glorious tales of the afterlife or the notions of a honey-soaked heaven. To him that was a dressing room for hell. Rather, he consoled himself with that fact that, in the real world, when he looked closely into the darkness he might find the presence of a light, damaged and bruised, but a little light, all the same. He wanted, quite simply, for the world to be a better place, and he was in the habit of hoping for it. Out of that came some sort of triumph that went beyond theological proof, a cause for optimism against all the evidence.

Without minimizing the unbearable suffering we create for each other and for ourselves, McCann has the courage to celebrate the love we are equally capable of giving. Though it may, indeed, transcend our understanding, in this author’s uncommonly generous view, it’s as much a part of us as our breath.

Colum McCann

Colum McCann