TransAtlantic is Colum McCann’s sixth novel, and in it we find, as we did in Dancer and Let the Great World Spin, a mixture of fictional characters and what could be called real ones if they hadn’t migrated from the sublunary world to the empyrean of art. First up are John Alcock and Arthur Brown, who in June 1919 became the first human beings to fly across the Atlantic Ocean; then Frederick Douglass on his visit to Ireland of 1845–46, a period coincident with the potato blight’s first widespread assault on the countryside; and, finally, George Mitchell, also in Ireland, coming up finally to the Good Friday Accords of 1998. Bridging the decades and diverseness of these actors are four generations of fictional women: Lily Duggan who emigrated from Ireland to the U.S. in 1846; her daughter, Emily; Emily’s daughter, Lottie; and finally Hannah, daughter of Lottie and the end of the line.

McCann shuffles time with his customary legerdemain, beginning with a brief flash-forward to 2012, which, we eventually discover, serves as the book’s conclusion. The novel doubles back to 1919 in Newfoundland with Alcock and Brown readying their aircraft for its transatlantic flight, while Emily, a reporter, and seventeen-year-old Lottie, a photographer, pop in and out of sight on the sidelines. The plane is a Vickers Vimy, “all wood and linen and wire,” a veteran — as are the two men — of the recent, devastating war. This portion of the book is immensely stirring, filled with the romance of mechanics and the theatrics of nature. The airplane’s description alone is a litany of specifications and hymn to harnessed power, concluding finally with “two water-cooled Rolls-Royce Eagle VIII engines of 360 horsepower and a turnover rate of 1,080 revs per minute, with twelve cylinders in two banks of six, each engine driving a four-bladed wooden propeller.”  

I know I am not alone in feeling a rush of joy at such details, so here I will mention that when I think of McCann’s novels, what I remember most vividly are the determined spirit of his characters in mastering physical forces and their author’s gift for finding drama in the laws of nature. I am thinking of the sandhogs in This Side of Brightness digging the tunnel under the East River in New York, earth and water held back until, in the book’s most arresting scene, unloosed pneumatic and hydraulic forces show their awful might. I think of Rudolf Nureyev in Dancer, not so much of his soaring leaps but of his learning to get up on stilts. I think of the (unnamed) Philippe Petit character in Let the Great World Spin and his meticulous attention to the forces inherent in his braided cable stretched between the towers of World Trade Center, of the threat to his life of “internal torque,” of snags, of the extrusion of oil.

In the present novel, the transatlantic flight is excruciatingly thrilling, beginning with a white-knuckle take-off, the plane so heavily loaded with fuel that it is barely able to rise clear of a stand of trees. Once aloft, the men must contend with debilitating noise and cold, with wind, snow, and, most harrowing of all, with the senses-extinguishing experience of flying through cloud: an aerial limbo where up and down have been lost. The arrival in Ireland is a wondrous scene: The aviators observe with relief the smooth green of an apparently ideal landing site — only to discover that it is bogland and little use in relieving kinetic energy. The doughty aircraft skims the surface, digs in its wheels, flips forward, and ends up nose down in two feet of primordial Ireland. In the distance, the people of the town of Clifden stream toward the plane, soldiers first. (“Don’t shoot, he thinks. After all this, don’t shoot us.”) Behind them come “horses and carts. A single motor car. A line of people coming from the town, snaking out along the road, small gray figures. And look at that, look at that. A priest in white vestments. Coming closer now. Men, women, children. Running. In their Sunday best.”  

Alcock and Brown alight from the air; Frederick Douglass from the sea, where he had been forced to travel in steerage thanks to the intolerance of some American “fellow” travelers. In Ireland, out of range of fugitive-slave laws, he can breathe freely for the first time in his life, and he is treated as the equal of the grand people he meets. Yet, he finds himself still trammeled, though in an unforeseen manner. Not far from the comfortable Quaker household in which he is staying in Dublin (waited upon by Lily Duggan), he finds unexampled squalor and misery in the city’s further streets. Later, a journey to Cork shows him not only the first ravages of famine but also principled callousness toward the starving, dying Irish peasantry. The hypocrisy manifest in the lofty abolitionist sentiments of his admirers and their heedlessness of terrific suffering all around them is distressing — and yet how can he speak out?  His mission is to advance the cause of the three million enslaved people in America. The tension between Douglass’s desire to speak against two species of injustice, and his knowledge that the one will damage the other is nicely played throughout by McCann.

It is when we get to George Mitchell that the novel loses momentum, though, to be sure, the negotiations over what became the Good Friday Accords did not proceed at the speed of greased lightning: the seemingly endless frustration and stall they entailed is certainly palpable here. Plunged into the mind of George Mitchell — a distinctly saintly arena judging by its furnishings — we witness his reflections on his life, his second, happy marriage, his baby boy, and this unsought-for task with its obdurate participants, which is eating into the time left to him on earth. It’s a hard old station — for Mitchell and reader alike.

Happily, things pick up once the agreement has been reached. A fine fictional interlude shows us Lily Duggan’s life in America, scenes from behind the lines during the Civil War and its terrible carnage; and, later, a vivid picture of the workings of an ice farm in the Midwest. Moving freely around in time, we follow the lives of Emily, Lottie, and Hannah, and arrive at one of the Trouble’s pointless murders. In the end one has to say that this book does not really cohere as a novel, certainly not with the centripetal force of Let the Great World Spin. The business of pulling it together is beyond the power of four generations of fictional women and some desperate metaphors. Here, for instance, is Mitchell’s feeling on the peace agreement, an image thrown into the breach: “He just wanted to land it. To take it down from where it was, aloft, like one of those great lumbering machines of the early part of the century, the crates of air and wood and wire they somehow flew across the water.” Still, the stories of the first transatlantic flight, Frederick Douglass in Ireland, and of life in the Midwest of the nineteenth century shine on their own.