Anyone familiar with a collection of short stories entitled Fishing the Sloe-Black River knows the strength of Colum McCann's writing. Like Thomas Wolfe, McCann writes lyrical prose that is both refined and urbane. Given the structure of the short story, McCann's talents distill themselves into wonderfully descriptive passages that segue gracefully into and out of the action of his well-captured characters. McCann is a master at making his language float about whatever subject or object he has chosen to describe. In his stories his vocabulary slips easily from the archaic to the profane, proving him to be much more than a literary stuffed shirt. McCann's strong knowledge of words is only out done by his even stronger sense of the way words sound. Whether expressing dialect or trying to evoke the emotion of a certain exchange, one cannot help but admire the way McCann's dialogues draw out sounds. The stories of Fishing the Sloe-Back River are a wonderful testament to a writer with an incredible ear for language.
This Side of Brightness follows in this tradition of powerful writing. This new novel captures all of the admirable qualities of his short stories and expands them. The long form of the novel suits McCann well in this generational story about one man's struggle to raise a family in New York City. The novel begins just after the turn of the century when we meet Nathan Walker, a transplanted Georgian working as a digger in the New York City subway system. Walker is embroiled in the burgeoning Irish community of the Lower East Side as he works in the dangerous and somewhat heroic position as a lead digger in the tunnels being excavated underneath the East River. After a disaster in the tunnels, Walker's ties to an Irish family are deepened by his eventual courtship and marriage to a deceased friend/coworker's daughter. From this marriage springs the great tale of the Walker clan as it spans three generations living in Harlem under the stigma of a being a family born from a racially mixed couple.
As a novelist McCann could not be better fit for such a remarkable tale about such a memorable family. His strengths at dialogue are well served not only in his rendering of life in the growing Irish community of New York but also through the thoughts and conversations of a mysterious homeless narrator whose place in the novel takes on an almost prodigal nature. McCann addresses the big issues of race, love, and time with a literary majesty that completely befits the nature and scope of this family epic. His tone as novelist is a wonderful reminder of the self-assured poetics of his shorter fiction, yet now even more of a literary treat as he traces out his tale through the vicissitudes of time. This Side of Brightness is an epic not only in its embrace of one family's generational struggles, but in its accomplishments as powerfully written art.