From the Publisher
“Luminescent. Colum McCann has taken the monumental force of the past and created from it a novel of wrenching emotional dimension, a novel resplendent with dignity.” The Boston Globe
“Inside the gritty and perilous lives of the men who dug the tunnels under New York's East River, Irish novelist Colum McCann finds poetry....McCann's prose shines like the waters of the East River on a bright winter day.” The Philadelphia Inquirer
“Disturbingly beautiful...A dazzling blend of menace and heartbreak.” The New York Times Book Review
Called "New York's most visible up-and-coming Irish writer" by the New York Times, McCann skillfully evokes early 20th-century New York, where Irish mixed with African Americans and Italians to dig the tunnel under the East River.
An ambitious, idiosyncratic, moving saga of immigrant life by Irish expatriate McCann (stories: Fishing the Sloe-black River, 1996; Songdogs, 1994, etc.). Writing in a prose of considerable allusive power, McCann ingeniously uses the NYC subway as a central symbol. In 1916, the excavation of subway tunnels gives immigrant Con O'Leary a chance at a decent job, otherwise denied to recent Irish arrivals. Among his fellow "sandhogs" is Nathan Walker, a young black man also determined to secure some part of the alluring American Dream. When O'Leary dies in one of the frequent cave-ins afflicting the massive project, Walker elects to help his devastated widow and young daughter. Over the succeeding years, a complex affection draws Nathan and Con's daughter Eleanor together, and eventually, despite the considerable risks involved, they marry. In a brisk narrative spanning eight decades, McCann finds in the struggles and fates of Eleanor and Nathan's descendants a vivid outline of the experiences of outcasts and immigrants in American society. In a sharply ironic touch the subway tunnels that had been, for Con and Nathan, a way into the mainstream have become, by the 1980's, a home for those on society's far fringes. Treefrog, a homeless man who's taken shelter beneath Riverside Park, has been so worn down by his social exile that he's uncertain of his past and his own name. McCann further stresses the increasing harshness of modern life by juxtaposing his depiction of Treefrog's impoverished, hallucinatory existence against some transcendent images of the natural world, including, most memorably, a recurrent image of a flock of cranes. A poet's version of a family saga, mingling originaland persuasive imagery with a story of great dramatic impactþand an angry, convincing criticism of the manner in which American society has repeatedly frustrated the attempts of outsiders to make a home. A haunting novel, by a writer emerging as a major talent (First printing of 35,000; Book-of-the-Month alternate selection; author tour)
Read an Excerpt
On the evening before the first snow fell, he saw a large bird frozen in the waters of the Hudson River. He knew it must have been a goose or a heron, but he decided that it was a crane. Its neck was tucked under its wingpit and the head was submerged in the river. He peered down at the water's surface and imagined the ancient ornamental beak. The bird's legs were spread out and one wing was uncurled as if it had been attempting to fly through ice.
Treefrog found some bricks at the edge of the path that ran along the waterfront, lifted them high, and flung them down around the bird. The first brick bounced and skidded on the ice, but the second broke the surface and animated the crane for just a moment. The wings skipped minutely. The neck moved in a stiff, majestic arc and the head emerged from under the water, gray and bloated. He rained the bricks down with ferocious intent until the bird was free to move beyond the ice to where the river flowed.
Tipping his sunglasses up on his forehead, Treefrog watched the bird float away. He knew it would sink to the sands of the Hudson or get frozen in the ice once more, but he turned his back and walked away through the empty park. He kicked at some litter, touched the icy bark of a crab-apple tree, reached the tunnel entrance, and removed both his overcoats. He squeezed his way into a gap in the iron gate and crawled through.
The tunnel was wide and dark and familiar. There was no sound. Treefrog walked along the railway tracks until he came to a large concrete column. He touched the column with both hands and waited a moment for his eyes to adjust; then he grabbed onto a handhold and, with spectacular strength, hauled himself up. He walked along the beam with perfect balance, reached another catwalk, and shunted himself upward once more.
In his dark nest, high in the tunnel, Treefrog lit a small fire of twigs and newspaper. It was late evening. A train rumbled in the distance.
A few pellets of ratshit had collected on the bedside table, and he swept them off before opening the table drawer. From the depths of the drawer Treefrog took out a small purple jewelry bag, undid the yellow string. For a moment he warmed the harmonica in his gloved fist above the fire. He put it to his mouth, tested its warmth, and pulled in a net of tunnel air. The Hohner slipped along his lips. His tongue flickered in against the reeds, and the tendons in his neck shone. He felt the music was breathing him, asserting itself through him. A vision of his daughter whipped up--she was there, she was listening, she was part of his music, she sat with her knees tucked up to her chest and rocked back and forth in childish ecstasy--and he thought once again of the frozen crane in the river.
Sitting there, in his nest, in the miasmic dark, Treefrog played, transforming the air, giving back to the tunnels their original music.