The New York Times
Man Gone Down: A Novelby Michael Thomas
On the eve of his thirty-fifth birthday, the unnamed black narrator of Man Gone Down finds himself broke, estranged from his white wife and three children, and living in the bedroom of a friend’s six-year-old child. He has four days to come up with the money to keep the kids in school and make a down payment on an apartment for them in which to live. As we slip between his childhood in inner city Boston and present-day New York City, we learn of a life marked by abuse, abandonment, raging alcoholism, and the best and worst intentions of a supposedly integrated America. This is a story of the American Dream gone awry, about what it’s like to feel preprogrammed to fail in life and the urge to escape that sentence.
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MAN GONE DOWN
By Michael Thomas
Black CatCopyright © 2007 Michael Thomas
All right reserved.
Chapter OneI know I'm not doing well. I have an emotional relationship with a fish-Thomas Strawberry. My oldest son, C, named him, and that name was given weight because a six-year-old voiced it as though he'd had an epiphany: "He looks like a strawberry." The three adults in the room had nodded in agreement.
"I only gave you one," his godfather, Jack, the marine biologist, told him. "If you have more than one, they kill each other." Jack laughed. He doesn't have kids. He doesn't know that one's not supposed to speak of death in front of them and cackle. One speaks of death in hushed, sober tones-the way one speaks of alcoholism, race, or secret bubble gum a younger sibling can't have. Jack figured it out on some level from the way both C and X looked at him blankly and then stared into the small aquarium, perhaps envisioning a battle royal between a bowlful of savage little fish, or the empty space left behind. We left the boys in their bedroom and took the baby with us. "They don't live very long," he whispered to us. "About six weeks." That was C's birthday in February. It's August, and he's not dead.
He's with me on the desk, next to my stack of books and legal pads. I left my laptop at my mother-in-law's for C to use. She'd raised an eyebrow as I started to the door. Allegedly, my magnum opus was on that hard drive-the book that would launch my career and provide me with the financialindependence she desired. "I write better if the first draft is longhand." She hadn't believed me. It had been a Christmas gift from Claire. I remember opening it and being genuinely surprised. All three children had stopped to see what was in the box.
"Merry Christmas, honey," she'd cooed in my ear. She then took me by the chin and gently turned my face to meet hers. "This is your year." She kissed me-too long-and the children, in unison, looked away. The computer was sleek and gray and brimming with the potential to organize my thoughts, my work, my time. It would help extract that last portion of whatever it was that I was working on and buff it with the requisite polish to make it salable. "This is our year." Her eyes looked glazed, as though she had been intoxicated by the machine's power, the early hour, and the spirit of the season. It had been bought, I was sure, with her mother's money. And I knew Edith had never believed me to have any literary talent, but she'd wanted to make her daughter feel supported and loved-although she probably had expected it to end like this. C had seemed happy when I left, though, sitting on the floor with his legs stretched under the coffee table, the glow from the screen washing out his copper skin.
"By-ye." He'd made it two syllables. He hadn't looked up.
Marco walks up the stairs and stops outside his kid's study, where I'm working. He knocks on the door. I don't know whether to be thankful or annoyed, but the door's open and it's his house. I try to be as friendly as I can.
"Yo! What's up?" He walks in. I turn halfway and throw him a wave. He comes to the desk and looks down at the stack of legal pads.
"Damn, you're cranking it out, man."
"I'm writing for my life." He laughs. I don't. I wonder if he notices.
"Is it a novel?"
I can't explain to him that three pads are one novel and seven are another, but what I'm working on is a short story. I can't tell him that each hour I have what I believe to be an epiphany, and I must begin again-thinking about my life.
"Want to eat something?"
"No thanks, man, I have to finish this part."
I turn around on the stool. I'm being rude. He's moved back to the doorway, leaning. His tie's loose. He holds his leather bag in one hand and a fresh beer in the other. He's dark haired, olive skinned, and long nosed. He's five-ten and in weekend racquetball shape. He stands there, framed by a clear, solid maple jamb. Next to him is more millwork-a solid maple bookcase, wonderfully spare, with books and photos and his son's trophies. There's a picture of his boy with C. They were on the same peewee soccer team. They're grinning, holding trophies in front of what I believe to be my leg. Marco clinks his wedding band on the bottle. I stare at him. I've forgotten what we were talking about. I hope he'll pick me up.
"Want me to bring you something back?"
"No, man. Thanks, I'm good."
I'm broke, but I can't tell him this because while his family's away on Long Island for the summer, I'm sleeping in his kid's bed and he earns daily what I, at my best, earn in a month, because he has a beautiful home, because in spite of all this, I like him. I believe he's a decent man.
"All right, man." He goes to take a sip, then stops. He's probably learned of my drinking problem through the neighborhood gossip channels, but he's never confirmed any of it with me.
"Call me on the cell if you change your mind."
He leaves. In the margins, I tally our monthly costs. "We need to make $140,000 a year," Claire told me last week. I compute that I'll have to teach twenty-two freshman comp sections a semester as well as pick up full-time work as a carpenter. Thomas Strawberry swims across his bowl to face me.
"I fed you," I say to him as though he's my dog. He floats, puckering his fish lips. Thomas, at one time, had the whole family copying his pucker face, but the boys got tired of it. The little one, my girl, kept doing it-the fish, the only animal she'd recognize. "What does the cow say?" I'd ask. "What does the cat say?" She'd stare at me, blankly, giving me the deadeye that only children can give-a glimpse of her indecipherable consciousness. "What does the fish say?" She'd pucker, the same way as when I'd ask her for a kiss-the fish face and a forehead to the cheekbone.
I packed my wife and kids into my mother-in-law's enormous Mercedes Benz at 7:45 p.m. on Friday, June 26. It was essential for both Claire and her mother to leave Brooklyn by eight with the kids fed and washed and ready for sleep for the three-and-a-half-hour drive to Massachusetts. Claire, I suppose, had learned the trick of planning long drives around sleeping schedules from her mother. Road trips required careful planning and the exact execution of those plans. I'd have to park in the bus stop on Atlantic Avenue in front of our building then run the bags, toys, books, and snacks down the stairs, trying to beat the thieves and meter maids. Then I'd signal for Claire to bring the kids down, and we'd strap them into their seats, equipping them with juice and crackers and their special toys. Then, in her mind, she'd make one last sweep of the house, while I'd calculate the cost of purchasing whatever toiletries I knew I'd left behind.
After the last bathroom check and the last seatbelt check, we'd be off. We'd sing. We'd tell stories. We'd play I Spy. Then one kid would drop off and we'd shush the other two until Jersey or Connecticut and continue to shush until the last one dropped. There's something about children sleeping in cars, perhaps something felt by parents, and perhaps only by the parents of multiple children-their heads tilted, their mouths open, eyes closed. The stillness and the quiet that had vanished from your life returns, but you must be quiet-respect their stillness, their silence. You must also make the most of it. It's when you speak about important things that you don't want them to hear: money, time, death-we'd almost whisper. We'd honor their breath, their silence, knowing that their faces would be changed each time they awoke, one nap older, that less easily lulled to sleep. Before we had children, we joked, we played music loud, we talked about a future with children. "What do you think they'll be like?" she'd ask. But I knew I could never voice the image in my head and make it real for her-our child; my broad head, her sharp nose, blond afro, and freckles-the cacophony phenotype alone caused. I would shake my head. She'd smile and whine, "What?" playfully, as though I was flirting with or teasing her, but in actuality, I was reeling from the picture of the imagined face, the noise inside her dichotomized mind, and the ache of his broken mongrel heart.
X was already beginning to fade when Edith turned on the engine. The sun was setting over the East River. The corrugated metal warehouses, the giant dinosaur-like cranes, and the silver chassis of the car were swept with a mix of rosy light and shadow. I used to drink on a hill in a park outside of Boston with my best friend, Gavin. He'd gotten too drunk at too many high school parties and he wasn't welcome at them anymore, so we drank by ourselves outside. We'd say nothing and watch the sun set. And when the light was gone from the sky, one of us would try to articulate whatever was troubling us that day.
"Okay, honey." Claire was buckling up. "We're all in." Edith tried to smile at me and mouthed, "Bye." She took a hand off the wheel and gave a short wave. I closed C's door and looked in at him to wave good-bye, but he was watching the dome light slowly fade from halogen white through orange to umber-soft and warm enough through its transitions to temporarily calm the brassiness of Edith's hair. I saw him say, "Cool" as it dulled, suspended on the ceiling, ember-like. Perhaps it reminded him of a fire he'd once seen in its dying stages, or a sunset. I watched him until it went off, and there was more light outside the car than in and he was partially obscured by my reflection.
C said something to his grandmother and his window lowered. He unbuckled himself and got up on his knees. Edith put the car in gear.
"Sit down and buckle up, hon." C didn't acknowledge her and stuck his hand out the window.
"Say good-bye to your dad."
There was something about daddy versus dad. Something that made it seem as though it was the last good-bye he'd say to me as a little boy. X's eyes were closed. My girl yawned, shook her head, searched for and then found her bottle in her lap. C was still waving. Edith rolled up all the windows. Claire turned to tell him to sit, and they pulled away.
Thomas Strawberry's bowl looks cloudy. There's bright green algae growing on the sides, leftover food and what I imagine to be fish poop on the bottom-charcoal-green balls that list back and forth, betraying an underwater current. Cleaning his bowl is always difficult for me because the risk of killing him seems so high. I don't know how much trauma a little fish can handle. So I hold off cleaning until his habitat resembles something like a bayou backwater-more suitable for a catfish than for Thomas. He has bright orange markings and elaborate fins. He looks flimsy-effete. I can't imagine him fighting anything, especially one of his own.
I tap the glass and remember aquarium visits and classroom fish tanks. There was always a sign or a person in charge warning not to touch the glass. Thomas swims over to me, and while he examines my fingertip, I sneak the net in behind him. I scoop him out of the water. He wriggles and then goes limp. He does this every time, and every time I think I've killed him. I let him out into his temporary lodgings. He darts out of the net, back to life, and swims around the much smaller confines of the cereal bowl. I clean his bowl in the bathroom sink and refill it with the tepid water I believe he likes. I go back to the desk. He's stopped circling. I slowly pour him back in. I wonder if his stillness in the net is because of shock or if he's playing possum. The latter of the two ideas suggests the possibility of a fishy consciousness. Since school begins for the boys in two weeks and I haven't found an apartment, a job, or paid tuition, I let it go.
I wonder if I'm too damaged. Baldwin somewhere once wrote about someone who had "a wound that he would never recover from," but I don't remember where. He also wrote about a missing member that was lost but still aching. Maybe something inside of me was no longer intact. Perhaps something had been cut off or broken down-collateral damage of the diaspora. Marco seems to be intact. Perhaps he was damaged, too. Perhaps whatever he'd had was completely lost, or never there. I wonder if I'm too damaged. Thomas Strawberry puckers at me. I tap the glass. He swims away.
I had a girlfriend in high school named Sally, and one day I told her everything. How at the age of six I'd been treed by an angry mob of adults who hadn't liked the idea of Boston busing. They threw rocks up at me, yelling, "Nigger go home!" And how the policeman who rescued me called me "Sammy." How I'd been sodomized in the bathroom of the Brighton Boys Club when I was seven, and how later that year, my mother, divorced and broke, began telling me that she should've flushed me down the toilet when she'd had the chance. I told Sally that from the day we met, I'd been writing poems about it all, for her, which I then gave to her. She held the book of words like it was a cold brick, with a glassy film, not tears, forming in front of her eyes. I fear, perhaps, that I'm too damaged. In the margins of the yellow pad I write down titles for the story-unholy trinities: Drunk, Black, and Stupid. Black, Broke, and Stupid. Drunk, Black, and Blue. The last seems the best-the most melodic, the least concrete. Whether or not it was a mystery remained to be seen.
The phone rings. It's Claire.
"Happy almost birthday."
It's been three weeks since I've seen my family. Three weeks of over-the-phone progress reports. We've used up all the platitudes we know. Neither of us can stand it.
"Are you coming?"
It's a setup. She knows I can't afford the fare.
"Do you have something lined up for tomorrow?"
"Yeah," I answer. As of now it's a lie, but it's nine. I have till Labor Day to come up with several thousand dollars for a new apartment and long overdue bills, plus an extra fifty for the bus. It's unlikely, but not unreasonable.
"Did you get the security check from Marta?" she asks, excited for a moment that someone owes us money.
"Fuck." She breathes. Claire's never been convincing when she curses. She sighs purposefully into the receiver. "Do you have a plan?"
"I'll make a plan."
"Will you let me know?"
"I'll let you know."
"I dropped my mother at the airport this morning."
"It's her house, I like your mother." It's a lie, but I've never, in the twelve years we've been together, shown any evidence of my contempt.
"I think C wants a Ronaldo shirt." She stops. "Not the club team. He wants a Brazil one." Silence again. "Is that possible?"
"I'll try." More silence. "How's your nose?"
"It's fine." She sighs. She waits. I can tell she's crunching numbers in her head. She turns her voice up to sound excited. "We'd all love to see you," then turns it back down-soft, caring, to pad the directive. "Make a plan."
Chapter TwoThe last time I saw them was late July at Edith's. The boys and I were in the kitchen. X was naked and broad-jumping tiles, trying to clear at least three at once. C had stopped stirring his potion, put down his makeshift magic wand and was pumping up a soccer ball. I was sipping coffee, watching them. We were listening to the Beatles. C was mouthing the words, X was singing aloud while in the air. As he jumped, he alternated between the lyrics and dinosaur names: Thump. "Dilophosaurus." Jump. "She's got a ticket to ride ..." Thump. "Parasaurolophus." His muscles flexed and elongated-too much mass and too well defined for a boy, even a man-boy, especially one with such a tiny, lispy voice. He vaulted up onto the round table. It rocked. I braced it. He stood up and flashed a toothy smile.
X looks exactly like me. Not me at three years old, me as a man. He has a man's body and a man's head, square jawed, no fat or softness. He has everything except the stubble, scars, and age lines. X looks exactly like me except he's white. He has bright blue-gray eyes that at times fade to green. They're the only part of him that at times looks young, wild, and unfocused, looking at you but spinning everywhere. In the summer he's blond and bronze-colored. He looks like a tan elf on steroids. It would seem fitting to tie a sword to his waist and strap a shield on his back.
Excerpted from MAN GONE DOWN by Michael Thomas Copyright © 2007 by Michael Thomas. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Michael Thomas was born and raised in Boston. He’s been a cab driver, carpenter, restaurateur and filmmaker. He received his BA from Hunter College and his MFA from Warren Wilson College. He teaches at Hunter and lives in Brooklyn with his wife and three children. Man Gone Down is his first novel.
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I was fortunate enough to have Mr. Thomas as a professor at Hunter college so when I heard that he was about to publish a book, I quickly researched when it would be available. I read it in less than three days. It was absolutely stunning. He is a brilliantly humble man who like the New York Times reviewer said 'writes what he knows.' It is not one of those novels you read where the author seems a little too full of himself to really mean what he is saying. I hung on his every last word and was devastated when it ended. Can't wait for his next one.
One of the most appealing qualities of a great novel is its ability to draw you in and sweep you away to a different place, situation and circumstance other than your own. It will cause you to wonder, reflect and dream. This story of determination and hope achieves just that. Not only was I fortunate enough to come across this book by mere chance - I happened to see a review on television one day - but I am also very fortunate to have had this author as a professor at Hunter College several years ago. Bravo Professor Thomas! I hope to read more from you in the near future.
Love this book. It's self-consciously literary without losing a kind of down to earth aspect which lends it an authenticity that few novelists achieve in a first effort. One of the qualities that stand out in Thomas' book in particular, at least for me, are the way he uses '60s icons like Baldwin or King as a philosophical touchstone for a series of broader ideas about the kind of social experiment that the narrator and other members of his generation have come to represent early in the 21st century. Another involves his way of using what are often little noticed physical traits, like the condition of a person's teeth for instance, to indicate certain elements of one's character. It's mindful of Bellow at his best. My only caveat is that Thomas' hasn't published anything else since then. I hope that he can be a little more prolific in the future.
an amazing book that succeeds at everything it attempts to be.