The images of the twin towers coming down and people falling and jumping from them is touched upon only briefly early on in Michael Thomas’ coming of (middle) age novel. This is not post 9-11 fiction, but it’s out there as a metaphor, make of it what you(the reader) will. The unnamed narrator sets out to tell his difficult story: the trails and tribs of a mixed-race black man in America, wedded to a Boston Brahmin white woman. Their family consists of three kids of various shades and hues.
Tough story. Tough road to hoe. All of which elicited very little sympathy from me. I’d say I feel his pain, but of course I can’t. Which doesn’t mean that I can’t say: Get over yourself. There’s too much of the ‘I’m really above all this muck’. The need to make a living and sell himself in this society, and being a man of color only adds to the complexity. Of course. Why me? Why any of us, really?
Michael Thomas seems to be a good and careful writer. But he’s no Ellison. He’s no Baldwin. Would that he were. Perhaps then the spaces between the good bits and the slightly whining, self-pitying bits would have been more bearable. More palatable. I can be a forgiving reader. Give me something, I’ll let something else pass.
The strict linear time-line of the story itself is four days in the life of. But “his” story extends well beyond that, all the way back to his childhood (absent father, abusive mother). While his marriage seems to be falling apart, I can’t for the life of me figure out why: his wife seems a saint, a loving and supportive, beautiful woman from all accounts. All the doubts are self-doubts, and it’s hard to fathom how he seems bent on throwing this all away. He’s 35 and busted and the drink can do him in, but he’s talented and bright and could, if not ‘have it all’, at least have a good life. A comfortable life. This is the 21st Century, he’s in New York….things could be worse.
In 1965 I was attending the University of Florida. The largest and cheapest cafeteria that most everyone ate at (right across the street from the campus) was de facto segregated. This was at the same time that there was a guy up in Georgia who became quite infamous for chasing black people out of his chicken restaurant with an axe handle. Anyway, Jim was a tall, skinny, good-looking white kid with a black girlfriend. Jim was an activist, and was organizing for the March on Selma. Jim never made it. He hung himself one day. He had two sisters that attended the UofF at the same time who I had a passing acquaintance with. We ran in the same circles at least. Mutual friends. We never knew what drove Jim to that final act. Yet we did know. We knew very well. It was a sad time for us all. For the country. What I mean to say is, that was then. This is now. Nearly 40 years later. No, I can’t walk in Thomas’ shoes, but I did follow Jim’s path in memory to Selma. Well…..
Thomas’ protagonist is surely marginalized, as are many men and women of color in this society. Seems to me that Thomas’ character acts to further marginalize, revel even in his otherness. Why not take a different route? Fight the odds? Perhaps this is the place to which Thomas’ character finally comes. It took an awful while, and a lot of pages to get there though.
But I mentioned some good bits. Thomas’ poet-writer protagonist is also a musician. Here he talks bout getting a play list together and picking up some gigs to make a few bucks. A pretty good riff on how the blues touches the soul, if you ask me.:
It has to be the blues. I want to make people sad, sad for me and sad for themselves, and then sadder still that they never realized that there are people so sad – that they have a connection to that sadness. I want to let them know what they’ve missed, to mourn it, then, in the booze-haze and their collective sorrow, have it reborn. I want to make them happy, then have them see and feel the gap between the two emotions – have them see that the distance they assume is an illusion, a lie told to them, but not have them feel guilt or shame but celebrate the other half – the blues.
Writers who write of characters who are writers, generally (if they’re any damn good) have some interesting things to say about the craft, the process. This here by Thomas captures the desperations of a writer nicely. Very nicely:
I don’t remember all of my desperations: desperate to publish before this author died; desperate to record before that singer passed – either to have them validate me or for me to tell them that they were wrong….I was desperate to have writing do things, to contain transformative powers, but writing has never done anything for me. It has never been cathartic or therapeutic. It names things, locates them, or at least when I’m writing. I can pretend to be involved in some kind of management of my netherworlds. I start with a feeling, perhaps even more substantial – an image attached to that feeling. I write something, even finish. Sometimes I think it is good. But the feeling is still there, unchanged, but now with a name and a reason for being, legitimized and calling for a permanent place in me….I push a pen across a page, gesturing at symbol, metaphor – pasting a collage of willfully mute and deaf images beside each other within some self-conscious vehicle that masquerades as story. But I get sidetracked in the production, ambushed in my own head. I trick myself for a moment, believe the words arranged just so will metamorphose into a balm. Part of me doesn’t believe. It tries to conceive the minds of unknown agents, faceless editors, and book review consumers. But part of me goes with it, chasing the words that follow the image as it moves up like braiding smoke offerings of ritualistic purification. It will never sell, I scribble a line across the page beneath the last jumble of words to signal I am done.
But it did sell. Michael Thomas won the coveted International Impac Dublin Literary Award for 2009.