Man and Boy on the Verge
Struggling through the dangers of the deep
BY SUZI STEFFEN
MAN GONE DOWN, fiction by Michael Thomas. Black Cat, 2007. Paperback original, $14.
THE EMPTY KINGDOM, fiction by Elizabeth E. Wein. Viking, 2008. Hardcover, $16.99.
Double consciousness pervades even the smallest moment of the narrator’s life in Michael Thomas’ graceful and heartrending first novel, Man Gone Down.
“It’s a strange thing to go through life as a social experiment,” the narrator says, “especially when the ones who conceived the experiment, the visionaries with sight of the end, with an understanding of the means, are all gone.”
He’s scholarly, damaged, wounded by a world where his attempts to write a dissertation about T.S. Eliot and modernism get labeled “archaic and frivolous,” where he’s told “a man of his history, background, and talents should know better.” But that’s far from the only wounding. The unnamed man, just turning 35. married to a white woman and father of three children, spends the four days of the book on a quest through New York to come up with enough money for a deposit on an apartment and tuition for his boys. His journey takes on the desperate rhythm of many a New York epic, and once when a white woman asks him his name, he responds, “Call me Ishmael.” But he’s more like Ahab, ready to be dragged down by the immensity of human betrayal.
Immersed in the depths of American literature, from Melville to Baldwin to Eliot, he can’t find a path to working as anything but a carpenter on odd, dangerous jobs across Brooklyn and Manhattan. He’s a man who knows too much, who feels too much, who was expected to succeed and fail in equal measure. He’s a writer who returns at the end of a hard summer day covered in muck — and what he comes back to is a loaner room in a successful friend’s house, where he sleeps on the friend’s kid’s bed while his own children spend the summer with their New England Brahmin grandmother. But he isn’t the only damaged young man in the book: Of his three good friends from high school, the other African American man has developed crippling schizophrenia; his Irish alcoholic friend weaves in and out of rehab; and the third died on 9/11.
Though the novel contains excesses and tangents, Man Gone Down depicts the dangers of hope and despair for those like the narrator. For, as W.E.B. DuBois explained a century ago: “He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without losing the opportunity of self-development.”
I wonder what this book would be like had Thomas finished it after the incredible rise of Barack Obama — if the prayers and hopes embodied in Obama (who represents and transcends that same “social experiment”) would have given the narrator a way to eat what the world offered without always wanting to throw it up, toss it back, deny his needs. But in this book, it’s enough of a victory if he can just survive with his family intact.
In Elizabeth Wein’s The Empty Kingdom, a sequel to last year’s complex and beautiful The Lion Hunter, a sixth-century Ethiopian/British boy faces similarly insurmountable obstacles. Lion Hunter took young Telemakos from his family in Aksum, the empire that encompassed modern-day Ethiopia, to the empire of Himyar in south Arabia — where he promptly got himself into a life-threatening amount of trouble with the Himyarite emperor. As Kingdom opens, 12-year-old Telemakos writes letters home, desperately trying to encode vital information. The najashi (king) tortures him into a semblance of obedience, a horrific suspended state from which Telemakos cannot see any escape.
The agonizing plots of Wein’s books about the complicated political and trading relationships of the post-Arthurian era only complement her skill with language and with stark emotional honesty. Readers who haven’t yet met Medraut, Goewin, Telemakos and Athena would do well to begin with A Coalition of Lions and move through The Sunbird and the two books in this sequence. With luck, by the time you’ve read Kingdom, Wein will just about be finished with her next book about the intriguing, clever, persistent and courageous Telemakos.