Going to the Sun

Going to the Sun

5.0 2
by James McManus

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Seven years ago, Penny's boyfriend was savagely attacked by a bear, setting off a chain of tragic events. Now, fighting a debilitating illness and haunted by her past, she finds herself incapable of emotional or sexual intimacy. As a way to break down the defenses she has built up in her safe Chicago life, she sets out on a cross-country bike tour. On this trip she


Seven years ago, Penny's boyfriend was savagely attacked by a bear, setting off a chain of tragic events. Now, fighting a debilitating illness and haunted by her past, she finds herself incapable of emotional or sexual intimacy. As a way to break down the defenses she has built up in her safe Chicago life, she sets out on a cross-country bike tour. On this trip she meets Ndele, a beautiful, mysterious black man who challenges her to confront her ghosts and decide whether to put her past behind her and live or succumb to the terrible uncertainties that plague even her dreams.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“A long, Americanized gloss on Beckett...Brilliant, funny and sometimes harrowing.” —The New York Times Book Review

“Vibrant, original, and keenly interesting at every level. Penny is Huck Finn after grad school, on her bike instead of the raft, but still traveling in search of liberation. Her coolly intelligent voice, the acute observation of the landscape through which she travels, and her pitiless detailing of the routine struggles of a diabetic are each perfect in their ways. This is a first-rate novel.” —Scott Turow

“Extraordinary work. McManus's precise treatment of physical love and chronic illness are simple and powerful.” —Anchee Minn

“Could not be more American...Penny's narrative--by turns lyrical, pissed off, and longing--is a triumph.” —Publishers Weekly

“A well-crafted tale of grief, introspection, and courage.” —Booklist

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Beckett, bicycling, basketball, bears and blood sugar are among the diverse interests of this meditative road story told in the stunning voice of a diabetic, emotionally scarred young woman. At 29, Penny Culligan, a jazz-loving student of Irish literature, is writing her doctoral thesis as she bicycles from Chicago to Alaska to confront a past trauma. She's bicycling back to the place where her lover, David, was mauled by a grizzly. Haunted by the experience, by the fact that she honored David's request to help him die, as well as by the impending threats of her own disease, Penny has lived in cautious solitude for the past seven years. Now, on this somewhat hazardous trek with the oft-postponed thesis deadline looming, she takes stock of her life. Along the way, she meets the possibly dangerous Ndele Rimes, who claims to be an NBA basketball player but might, she fears, be lying. Poet (Great America) and novelist McManus (Out of the Blue; Chin Music) makes interesting use of Beckett, relating his obsession with physical decay to Penny's diabetes, but ultimately this novel, with its heartland highway vistas and constant motion, could not be more American. If the ending is a bit awkward or unsatisfying, it only underscores the paramount importance of journey over destination. Penny's narrative-by turns lyrical, pissed off and longing-is a triumph.
Library Journal
Penny is a thirtyish Beckett scholar with little hope of finishing her dissertation; she has a serious case of diabetes and a ghost from the past. It has been seven years since she mercifully injected her boyfriend, who was mauled by a bear in Alaska, with a fatal dose of her own insulin. Now she is cycling from Chicago to Alaska on a mission not even she fully comprehends. When she has an accident in North Dakota, a very tall, young black man claiming to be a basketball pro and driving a new Mercedes convertible without license plates offers to help. She accepts despite her fears. A complex friendship develops in a short time. But is he really what he claims to be? Can she make it to Alaska? Has her life itself become a Beckettian open question? McManus's (Curtains, Univ. of Chicago, 1985) unusual psychodrama may not be flawless, but it is engaging and challenging, and has a gripping conclusion somewhat reminiscent of the infamous sled ride in Ethan Frome. Recommended for public and academic libraries.-Jim Dwyer, California State Univ. Lib., Chico

Product Details

Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
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Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.79(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

This isn't really a horror story, but for the last seven years just the thought of what happened to David, of what I did to my Saint, has burned in my blood like cold powdered glass for an hour or two every day, sometimes all day and all night. Sometimes for eight or ten nights in a row, whether or not I'm awake. I can't make myself not remember it.

The day the ferry dropped us off at our campsite, June 28, was clear, crisp, and reasonably warm, about sixty-five degrees, but thirty degrees cooler when the sun sank below the mountains. The top third of the Alseks were covered with snow, and some of the shallower inlets were frozen. Four humpback whales breached and showed us their flukes as we cruised up the bay. Miniature icebergs tilted and spun in our wake.

It was the first time I'd ever seen mountains. Our campsite, on the northeastern shore of Tarr Inlet, was surrounded by them: the Alseks behind us, rising twelve thousand feet from the water, and the Fairweather range to the west--higher, more jagged, cutting the sun off six hours before it actually set in the Pacific.

Between the two ranges were the Margerie and Grand Pacific glaciers, which came together at the northern tip of Tarr Inlet in a four-mile-long wall of ice the color of road salt. Fruzen Velva, Saint called it. When a glacier calved--as one of them did every fifteen or twenty minutes--blue bergs the size of six-flats ripped away from the wall and belly-flopped into the water. It sounded like planes taking off.

Our campsite was almost three miles from the ice, directly across the inlet from Margerie Glacier, but the intensity of the light bouncing back throughthe crystalline air made it seem like three blocks. Even with sunglasses on, it was painful to do more than glance at it. The way it just glowed, the blue ice looked plugged-in or somehow on fire. Our plan was to paddle our kayaks along "her" (Saint's designation) the following morning, drifting up close without getting too reckless.

We pitched our tent on a flat patch of turf twenty yards from the water in a clearing surrounded by alders and birch trees not much taller than me. The closest other campsite was three hundred yards to the south.

David took out his rod and tackle box and caught three gorgeous trout in ten minutes; he was more of a firing squad than a sportsman. I walked down the inlet and took a roll of pictures of eagles and mountains and glaciers. I didn't take any of David that afternoon; I figured it could wait till after dinner--or the morning, when he got in his kayak. I was also planning to use the timer and set up some pictures of both of us.

Sitting on our zipped-together sleeping bags, I loaded a syringe in the light from our reading lamp. (For passionate young lovers communing with unspoiled nature, we'd sure packed a lot of CD's and books and syringes.) I brushed away an especially ferocious mosquito before hitting myself up in my lower-left thigh--my first and last shot in the wilderness--then stowed the syringe in our trash bag. We'd been instructed in no uncertain terms by the rangers to "pack out" all nonbiodegradable refuse. I figured this meant used syringes.

I was more concerned with staying warm, brushing my teeth, and coming up with a plan for washing my hair without going hypothermic; the idea of dunking my head into an inlet of Glacier Bay made my molars ring out sostenuto. Once the sun went below the Fairweathers, it was hard to stop shivering, though the sky was still bright overhead. I was wearing a quilted down vest, insulated hiking boots, jeans, a flannel shirt, and long underwear. Brrr! It was gorgeous and horrible, camping. I firmly decided never to do it again, changed my mind several times, never achieved any closure. But I loved being out there with Saint.

My image of him in Alaska: sitting cross-legged on top of the boulder in front of our sleek yellow tent, reading the booklet of liner notes to a Mingus CD while swatting bugs from his face. Incipient dark-brown goatee, black plastic sunglasses with green prescription lenses for his weak gray-blue eyes, brown hair swept back behind his ears, pushed down across the top by the headphones. Behind him the Alseks are dull gold and black, backlit with sapphire sky and gray cotton clouds tipped with pink. But above all his face. Just his face.

When I experimented with my kayak, practicing for our trip to the glacier, it wasn't as unwieldy or prone to flip over as I'd thought it would be. It went more or less where I aimed it. I made two wobbly arcs out and away from Saint's boulder, then rested my paddle across the bow and mock-flexed my biceps to show him how pumped I was feeling. I knew he was anxious about whether the pancreatically challenged were up to this level of roughing it. So. I was showing him.

He grinned and flexed back at me. Now that I'd stopped paddling, I could hear "Fables of Faubus" leaking out the sides of his headphones.

"Any no-see-ums out there?" he called, much too loud.

I shook my head no and kept flexing.

Less loudly, he asked, "There are but you just can't see um?"

When I pretended to grab one from out of the air and squish it by clapping my hands, he applauded in time to the music.

We scoured the campsite, then got into the tent a little after eleven. It had already been a long day, and it was two in the morning Chicago (and my body clock's) time. Ah Um was playing on the little foam Discman headphones, which were down by the ends of our sleeping bags. Even with the volume on ten, it was distant and comically tinny. Outside the tent the bay rippled gently, incessantly, lapping the pebbles beneath our beached kayaks. I felt horny and cold and sequestered, alone in the wild with my Saint.

He pulled off his sweatshirt, cursing and swatting mosquitos. I leaned back on the egg-crate foam mattress and watched him. He was pretty in daylight with clothes on; he was pretty in moonlight soaking through yellow Gore-Tex. Bugs whined behind and between us as I rolled back and shimmied from my jeans. It felt like I was sitting on soft little mountains--as though my thighs had expanded to vast, continental proportions. Saint stroked the inside of one, then the other, using the back of his hand, one too-brief, unhasty stroke each. I couldn't stop shivering, but I didn't feel cold anymore. From the short streak of gray on his chin, I could tell that he'd just brushed his teeth.

He pulled off his boots and socks. His legs were tanned from the middle of his thighs to his toes except for the lines from the straps of his sandals, which glowed in the dark at the other end of the tent, a million and a half miles away.

"Ghosts," I said, pointing them out.

He squinted. "Iridescent puppies," he said, wiggling his long, bony toes. The white wishbone lines bent and shimmered.

"Like the fruzen velva glaciers," I said.

"Oh, I don't wanna lick them," he sang. "I just wanna be their victim."

"Lick who?"

He kissed me. The cathedral vault of the tent was brushing our hair and the sides of our faces. We knelt there and kissed for a while. It was only our fifth night together, and sometimes I don't even count it.

Eventually David pulled back his knees and slid off his shorts. In the moonlight his olive-drab boxers looked black against his pale skin. I could see his erection slanting up toward the waistband. I was trying to decide whether to make a friendly remark about that when he put his hand on the side of my neck and kissed me again. No tongues in play, just lips lightly brushing. I tasted a soupýon of baking soda as I ran my hand over his chest.

We knelt on the mountainous foam and fondled each other as the mosquitoes and no-see-ums attacked. I ran my nails over his nipples. I knew David liked that; I loved when he did it to me. We nibbled on each other's lips. I hoped that my breath wasn't horrible. Gently, our lips barely touching, then with sudden ferocity, we kissed. We were starting to get pretty good at it.

But the mosquitoes were still a huge nuisance, even inside the zipped tent. We'd been careful all day to keep the mesh doorway zipped, but there were still five or ten of them buzzing us. I'd read in a guidebook that only the females would sting you for blood--but so what did the males do for nourishment? Rely on their wives or their girlfriends? Whatever their gender, the ones in our tent were half an inch long and persistent.

Saint sprayed some Jungle Juice on his fingers and painted my neck, my forehead, my cheeks, the insides of my wrists . . .

"Hold still," he told me.

"It's cold, plus it tickles," I said, holding as still as I could.

He lifted my sweatshirt and rattled the can back and forth. I swallowed. Gingerly, watching me, taking his goddamn sweet time, he fingerpainted each of my nipples. All in good time, I reciprocated, daubing chevrons of invisible war paint onto his nose, cheekbones, forehead. I told him to take off his shirt.

"Yes'm," he said shiveringly, mocking me. "Whatever you s-say. A-a-absolutely."

"Turn around." I squinted, the better to see him obey me.


Meet the Author

James McManus is a novelist and poet, most recently winner of the Peter Lisagor Award for sports journalism. He teaches writing and comparative literature at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, including a course on the literature and science of poker.

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Going to the Sun 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I was instantly drawn into the story of Penny and her loss. The story is so beautifully written that I have since read it several times over. It is one of my favorites sitting on my bookshelf.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Just finished Going to the Sun and I hated to see it end. As a newly diagnosed type I Diabetic (at age 30), I loved reading about someone else¿s trials. I was very encouraged by Penny's determination and am thinking about wiping the dust off my (almost new) Trek.