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: Lucy 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 picks 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.
Katherine A. Powers reviews books widely and has been a finalist for the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. She is the editor of Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J. F. Powers, 1942–1963.
Reviewer: Katherine A. Powers
Read an Excerpt
It was a modified bomber. A Vickers Vimy. All wood and linen and wire. She was wide and lumbering, but Alcock still thought her a nippy little thing. He patted her each time he climbed onboard and slid into the cockpit beside Brown. One smooth motion of his body. Hand on the throttle, feet on the rudder bar, he could already feel himself aloft.
What he liked most of all was rising up over the clouds and then flying in clean sunlight. He could lean out over the edge and see the shadowshift on the whiteness below, expanding and contracting on the surface of the clouds.
Brown, the navigator, was more reserved—it embarrassed him to make such a fuss. He sat forward in the cockpit, keen on what clues the machine might give. He knew how to intuit the shape of the wind, yet he put his faith in what he could actually touch: the compasses, the charts, the spirit level tucked down at his feet.
It was that time of the century when the idea of a gentleman had almost become myth. The Great War had concussed the world. The unbearable news of sixteen million deaths rolled off the great metal drums of the newspapers. Europe was a crucible of bones.
Alcock had piloted air-service fighters. Small bombs fell away from the undercarriage of his plane. A sudden lightness to the machine. A kick upwards into the night. He leaned out from his open cockpit and watched the mushroom of smoke rise below. His plane leveled out and turned towards home. At times like that, Alcock craved anonymity. He flew in the dark, his plane open to the stars. Then an airfield would appear below, the razor wire illuminated like the altar of a strange church.
Brown had flown reconnaissance. He had a knack for the mathematics of flight. He could turn any sky into a series of numbers. Even on the ground he went on calculating, figuring out new ways to guide his planes home.
Both men knew exactly what it meant to be shot down.
The Turks caught Jack Alcock on a long-range bombing raid over Suvla Bay and pierced the plane with machine-gun fire, knocked off his port propeller. He and his two crewmen ditched at sea, swam to shore. They were marched naked to where the Turks had set up rows of little wooden cages for prisoners of war. Open to the weather. There was a Welshman beside him who had a map of the constellations, so Alcock practiced his navigation skills, stuck out under the nailheaded Turkish night: just one glance at the sky and he could tell exactly what time it was. Yet what Alcock wanted more than anything was to tinker with an engine. When he was moved to a detention camp in Kedos, he swapped his Red Cross chocolate for a dynamo, traded his shampoo for tractor parts, built a row of makeshift fans out of scrap wire, bamboo, bolts, batteries.
Teddy Brown, too, had become a prisoner of war, forced to land in France while out on photographic reconnaissance. A bullet shattered his leg. Another ruptured the fuel tank. On the way down he threw out his camera, tore up his charts, scattered the pieces. He and his pilot slid their B.E.2c into a muddy wheatfield, cut the engine, held their hands up. The enemy came running out of the forest to drag them from the wreck. Brown could smell petrol leaking from the tanks. One of the Krauts had a lit cigarette in his lips. Brown was known for his reserve. Excuse me, he called out, but the German kept coming forward, the cigarette flaring. Nein, nein. A little cloud of smoke came from the German’s mouth. Brown’s pilot finally lifted his arms and roared: For fucksake, stop!
The German paused in midstride, tilted his head back, paused, swallowed the burning cigarette, ran toward the airmen again.
It was something that made Brown’s son, Buster, laugh when he heard the story just before he, too, went to war, twenty years later. Excuse me. Nein, nein. As if the German had only the flap-end of his shirt sticking out, or had somehow neglected to tie his shoelace properly.
Brown was shipped home before the armistice, then lost his hat high in the air over Piccadilly Circus. The girls wore red lipstick. The hems of their dresses rose almost to their knees. He wandered along the Thames, followed the river until it crawled upwards to the sky.
Alcock didn’t make it back to London until December. He watched men in black suits and bowler hats pick their way amid the rubble. He joined in a game of football in an alley off the Pimlico Road, knocking a round pigskin back and forth. But he could already sense himself aloft again. He lit a cigarette, watched the smoke curl high and away.
When they met for the first time in the Vickers factory in Brook-lands, in early 1919, Alcock and Brown took one look at each other and it was immediately understood that they both needed a clean slate. The obliteration of memory. The creation of a new moment, raw, dynamic, warless. It was as if they wanted to take their older bodies and put their younger hearts inside. They didn’t want to remember the bombs that had dudded out, or the crash or burn, or the cellblocks they had been locked into, or what species of abyss they had seen in the dark.
Instead they talked about the Vickers Vimy. A nippy little thing.
The prevailing winds blew east from Newfoundland, pushing hard and fast across the Atlantic. Eighteen hundred miles of ocean.
The men came by ship from England, rented rooms in the Cochrane Hotel, waited for the Vimy to arrive at the docks. It came boxed in forty-seven large wooden crates. Late spring. A whip of frost still in the air. Alcock and Brown hired a crew to drag the crates up from the harbor. They strapped the boxes to horses and carts, assembled the plane in the field.
The meadow sat on the outskirts of St. John’s, on a half-hill, with a level surface of three hundred yards, a swamp at one end, and a pine forest at the other. Days of welding, soldering, sanding, stitching. The bomb bays were replaced by extra petrol tanks. That’s what pleased Brown the most. They were using the bomber in a brand-new way: taking the war out of the plane, stripping the whole thing of its penchant for carnage.
To level out the meadow, they crimped blasting caps to fuses, shattered boulders with dynamite, leveled walls and fences, removed hillocks. It was summertime but still there was a chill in the air. Flocks of birds moved fluidly across the sky.
After fourteen days the field was ready. To most people it was simply another patch of land, but to the two pilots it was a fabulous aerodrome. They paced the grass runway, watched the breeze in the trees, looked for clues in the weather.
Crowds of rubberneckers flocked to see the Vimy. Some had never ridden in a motorcar, let alone seen a plane before. From a distance it looked as if it had borrowed its design from a form of dragonfly. It was 42.7 feet long, 15.25 feet high, with a wingspan of 68 feet. It weighed 13,000 pounds when the 870 gallons of petrol and the 40 gallons of oil were loaded. Eleven pounds per square foot. The cloth framework had thousands of individual stitches. The bomb spaces were replaced by enough fuel for 30 hours of flying. It had a maximum speed of 103 miles per hour, not counting the wind, a cruising speed of 90 mph and a landing speed of 45 mph. There were 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.
The onlookers ran their hands along the struts, tapped the steel, pinged the taut linen of the wings with their umbrellas. Kids crayoned their names on the underside of the fuselage.
Photographers pulled black hoods over their lenses. Alcock mugged for the camera, shaded his hand to his eyes like an ancient explorer. Tally-ho! he shouted, before jumping the nine feet to the wet grass below.
The newspapers said anything was possible now. The world was made tiny. The League of Nations was being formed in Paris. W. E. B. Du Bois convened the Pan-African Congress with delegates from fifteen countries. Jazz records could be heard in Rome. Radio enthusiasts used vacuum tubes to transmit signals hundreds of miles. Some day soon it might be possible to read the daily edition of the San Francisco Examiner in Edinburgh or Salzburg or Sydney or Stockholm.
In London, Lord Northcliffe of the Daily Mail had offered £10,000 to the first men to land on one side of the Atlantic or the other. At least four other teams wanted to try. Hawker and Grieve had already crashed into the water. Others, like Brackley and Kerr, were positioned in airfields along the coast, waiting for the weather to turn. The flight had to be done in seventy-two hours. Nonstop.
There were rumors of a rich Texan who wanted to try, and a Hungarian prince and, worst of all, a German from the Luftstreitkräfte who had specialized in long-range bombing during the war.
The features editor of the Daily Mail, a junior of Lord Northcliffe’s, was said to have developed an ulcer thinking about a possible German victory.
—A Kraut! A bloody Kraut! God save us!
He dispatched reporters to find out if it was possible that the enemy, even after defeat, could possibly be ahead in the race.
On Fleet Street, down at the stone, where the hot type was laid, he paced back and forth, working the prospective headlines over and over. On the inside of his jacket his wife had stitched a Union Jack, which he rubbed like a prayer cloth.
—Come on boys, he muttered to himself. Hup two. On home now, back to Blighty.
Every morning the two airmen woke in the Cochrane Hotel, had their breakfast of porridge, eggs, bacon, toast. Then they drove through the steep streets, out the Forest Road, towards a field of grass sleeved with ice. The wind blew bitter blasts off the sea. They rigged wires into their flight suits so they could run warmth from a battery, and they stitched extra fur on the inside flaps of their helmets, their gloves, their boots.