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The Sky Below

The Sky Below

3.8 4
by Stacey D'Erasmo

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From a rising literary star “in the tradition of Carol Shields and A. S. Byatt” comes this luminous story of a contemporary man’s metamorphosis.
Andrea Barrett and Michael Cunningham have lauded Stacey D’Erasmo for the beauty of her language and her ability to create worlds that leave a lasting impression. In her new novel, D’Erasmo


From a rising literary star “in the tradition of Carol Shields and A. S. Byatt” comes this luminous story of a contemporary man’s metamorphosis.
Andrea Barrett and Michael Cunningham have lauded Stacey D’Erasmo for the beauty of her language and her ability to create worlds that leave a lasting impression. In her new novel, D’Erasmo reaches back to Ovid for inspiration in this tale of how the mythic animates our everyday lives. At thirty-seven, Gabriel Collins works halfheartedly as an obituary writer at a fading newspaper in lower Manhattan, which, since 9/11, feels like a city of the dead. This once dreamy and appealing boy has turned from a rebellious adolescent to an adult who trades in petty crimes.His wealthy, older boyfriend is indulgent of him—to a point. But after a brush with his own mortality, Gabriel must flee to Mexico in order to put himself back together. By novel’s end, we know all of Gabriel’s ratty little secrets, but by dint of D’Erasmo’s spectacular writing, we exult in the story of an imperfect man who—tested by a world that is often too much for him—rises to meet the challenge.

Editorial Reviews

Susann Cokal
All the same, it's hard not to be seduced by this willfully selfish man, D'Erasmo's most complex and accomplished character to date… Gabriel may not be a great person, but in his hunger for expression, for a father, for a home, he embodies the deep yearnings and sense of entrapment that can make anyone act badly…Vibrant and precise, his storytelling is memorable not so much for its individual phrases (though plenty are exquisite) as for its overall sense of immersion into a distinctive world.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

A luminous novel crafted in meticulous detail with shimmering language, D'Erasmo's third book tells the story of Gabriel Callahan's life, beginning with his father's abandonment when Gabriel was a child and tracing his ambivalent search for wholeness through adolescence and into adulthood. An obituary writer for a "half-assed tourist newspaper" in post-9/11 Manhattan, Gabriel is also an artist, creating still lifes from found and stolen objects. Gabriel's lover, Janos, a wealthy financier, hopes that Gabriel will abandon his marginal life and move in with him, but Gabriel steadfastly refuses, even when a health crisis threatens to undo him. An impulsive trip to Mexico leads him to a hardscrabble commune where he finds a belated clarity. The descriptions of Gabriel's artwork and his daily struggles comprise a dizzying trip through metaphor and expression, the undisputed centerpiece of which is the dazzling, complicated narration in vivid prose. This is a demanding and immensely satisfying novel, and certainly one of the better New York artist novels in recent memory. (Jan.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

We first meet young Gabriel when his joys are few: playing make-believe with his older sister; creating art with his mother; building miniature cities out of Christmas boxes that cover the house. When his father abandons the family, however, Gabriel's world falls apart. His mother moves them to a dismal motel in Florida, and Gabriel grows up dealing drugs and turning tricks in men's restrooms. This reviewer wishes she could report that Gabriel's life improves as he gets older; instead, he works a dead-end job writing obituaries and dates an older man he doesn't love while he debates his meaningless life. This depressing story starts off promisingly, but several odd plot devices like a mysterious terminal illness and a tacked-on extended stay at a Mexican commune leave the reader with the disheartening feeling that if Gabriel doesn't care about himself, Why should we? Despite D'Erasmo's dexterity of language and approachable writing style, the double whammy of unlikable characters and an unruly plot makes it a forgettable reading experience.
—Kellie Gillespie

Los Angeles Times

Not about dissolution but redemption -- a revolutionary concept...The Sky Below could be [D'Erasmo's] breakthrough, a book that moves back and forth between the real world and the elaborate layers of its characters' inner life.

San Francisco Chronicle

A beautifully written compilation of the small, strange specificities that make us each uniquely human...D'Erasmo's fluidity of writing style amplifies credibility and cohesiveness. There's no question that she can write, and that is ultimately what lets "The Sky Below" do as much as it does

From the Publisher

"In her conceptually brilliant, imaginative, brimming and suspenseful novel, her evocations of place are ravishing; her characters are at once richly human and magical, and their confounding predicaments are both commonplace and cosmic." --Los Angeles Times

" ...studded throughout are ringingly memorable lines, ones that make you see, hear, feel." --Boston Globe

"A beautifully written compilation of the small, strange specificities that make us each uniquely human." --Margot Kaminski, San Francisco Chronicle

"D’Erasmo’s most complex and accomplished character to date...Gabriel’s voice is irresistible." --New York Times Book Review (cover review)

"Intricately imagined and economically told, D'Erasmo's riddling third novel made me want to start over as soon as I reached the last page." --Bloomberg News

"THE SKY BELOW gathers narrative force as Gabe's tale becomes stranger, and as the cruel mingles with the tender in a way that startles and abrades. Cather, I think, would have been shocked and intrigued by this accomplished book." -- The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)

"D'Erasmo writes beautifully, her sentences urgent, whispery, holding their breath as Gabe does, waiting for magic." --The Star-Tribune (Minneapolis)

"Part magical realism and part acid trip, The Sky Below is the stuff that dreams are made of." --Zink Magazine

"Rich in detail, with expertly spun sentences, this is a novel for connoisseurs of words." --Elle

"After two earlier, likable efforts, D'Erasmo moves to the top of her craft with THE SKY BELOW --She is an expert at listening to human nature." --Town & Country

"Stacey D'Erasmo has made a name for herself as a serious prose artist who describes tilted people with a level gaze." -- Newsday

"Gabe’s story is both plausible and fantastic; even when reality is stretched thread-thin, it’s engaging, thanks to Stacey D’Erasmo’s prose, which manages to be both elegant and economical." -- New York Observer

"Hard-nosed but lyrical, unsentimental but moving, mythical but modern, The Sky Below is a precisely calibrated balancing act. It tells the story of a man who must stop living in a fantasy world, yet it never loses touch with the value of art and magic." -- Time Out New York

"…could be her breakthrough, a book that moves back and forth between the real world and the elaborate layers of its characters' inner life." -- Los Angeles Times

"...you can feel D’Erasmo’s maturity and intelligence in this textured and vivid portrait of contemporary life." -- The Advocate

"...full of brilliant, uncanny elements that intersect in ways both puzzling and true." --Bookforum

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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Read an Excerpt


You’ve seen me. I’m the guy opposite you on the subway or the bus, I’ve passed you on the street a million times, I’ve stood behind you or in front of you in line. I look familiar, though you can’t quite place me — I look like a lot of people you know, or used to know. Average height, average weight, wavy red hair cut close, khakis, intelligent expression, but something — there’s something about me. Slyness, maybe, or sadness; hard to say which. An indeterminacy just beneath my ordinariness. Lines at my eyes: forty, forty-two? Graying temples. I carry a surprisingly nice briefcase, leather, initialed G.J.C. When I put on my glasses and open the briefcase on the subway, you see that there are lists of names inside, highlighted in different colors. Who are those people? You try not to be obvious, not to stare. Next to each name, a date, most of them recent, though as I page through the list, the dates recede, back into the last century, the 1930s, the 1920s, even.
     I close the briefcase. Probably, I smile at you in a distracted way. My eyes behind my glasses look large. I hold the briefcase on my knees awkwardly, possessively. Tattooed in the triangle of skin between my left thumb and index finger there is a small, dark blue bird in flight. It heads toward my pinky and, presumably, away, off my hand. Though, of course, it doesn’t fly off; it is fixed there, wings open. You notice that I am looking at myself in the dark subway window, watching my face change from invisible to visible, dark to light, younger to older, and back again, as the train moves and stops and moves again. Like an image on a loop of film, or in water, I hold, blur, hold, blur, over and over, swaying slightly with the motion of the train. You look at yourself, then at me. Our eyes meet in the window, hold for a moment, before we look away. Later, you can’t quite remember my face. You remember instead the bird, fixed, flying.

Chapter 1

The House

When did I first stumble into the wrong grove?
     My mother’s house was beautiful.
     I mean before. We lived on a cul-de-sac called Tinker’s Way, in Bishop, Massachusetts, and behind our house were woods that were wet, or dry, or icy, or soft, depending on the season. I was a small, dreamy, very nervous boy. From the outside, our house looked as if it had been pinched out of clay. The roof tilted. The windows sat uneasily in their frames. The brick walkway to our house curved, sort of unnecessarily. It would have been easier, and a shorter walk for the walkway to have been laid straight. It was missing a brick here and there in a pattern that looked as if a tune was being picked out. At the back of the house, another brick walkway curved in the opposite direction, leading into the woods until it dissolved in leaves and dirt. There was a gate, standing on its own, connected to nothing but the ground, at the very end of that walkway. My mother put the gate there; she trained a vine with blue flowers on it to grow around the gate. One of my earliest memories is of sitting at that gate, staring steadfastly at the woods, where I was not allowed to play alone, with a tremendous sense of anticipation. I was waiting for something or someone to materialize, a monster or a ghost or a wild boar or a band of dirty, magical children who would spirit me away. I was sure that they were coming. I listened hard for them.
     Inside, the bare wood floors continually rang with the sound of the three of us — my mother; my older sister, Caroline; and me — running over them, being kings and queens and tarantulas and creatures from outer space and nameless beings with one or two or three cardboard horns. We spun around the living room, knocking things over. The furniture was draped in different, lush fabrics, the endless beginnings of projects to make it all over. Paisleys, brocades, and brilliant colors of velvet. Ghostly muslin at the windows. Shells and important rocks and leaves of particular specialness in the corners of the room. Everything could be moved in an instant for a game or a show or a pageant. My mother flitted between us, her long, loose, wavy red hair like a flag we followed. Both of her parents, my grandparents, had been high school teachers; she had wanted to be a modern dancer. She had spent some time in Boston after college going on auditions, but it was our house that became her stage.
     I had a sad brown bear of a father who ran a small contracting business. In Bishop, the contracting work to be had was building additions on the backs of houses, maybe an extra bathroom. I never saw my father in a suit; there was often dust in his eyebrows. He had a beard like a man from the Civil War; his jeans sagged. His hands were big. In the evenings, particularly in the winter when contracting was slow, he’d go out to the garage where he was teaching himself to make guitars. He stayed there for hours, in silence except for the barely audible, scratchy sound of his transistor radio. We didn’t include him in our games, and on the rare occasion when he joined in, he was awkward; he broke things with his big hands. He couldn’t thread a needle, couldn’t manage yarn, couldn’t glue. Eggshells were a catastrophe for him. He brought me a football, a set of little green soldiers, a magnifying glass. I put them all on my bookshelf and left them there. I did, though, like the shape of the magnifying glass, and the way it made the book spines behind it look strange and dreamy if you propped it on its side.
     I didn’t like war or footballs or magnifying glasses or the half-built additions he took me in the drafty truck to see. I liked to make beautiful things with my mother. When I was very small, my mother would fill the sink with ice and then, together, we’d pour food coloring onto the ice, and the blue and red and yellow would swirl, making purple and green in some places, while in other places the blue or the red tendriled down on its own, cutting a long blue path, a river or a ribbon, over the frozen hummocks heaped up in our ordinary sink. I thought it was a miracle. It seemed that she did, too, leaning on her elbows on the counter. We could do that for hours, not getting hungry or tired, staring at the treasure in the kitchen sink, pouring in the red, pouring in the blue. "Gabriel," she said, "be a maestro," and I was a maestro with my bottles of food coloring, conducting our symphony in the kitchen sink.
     Gabriel, my mother used to say. My angel. When she said it, I really thought it was true. That’s the kind of kid I was. I believed everything. In Massachusetts, Caroline was always outside, running around the yard finding things or digging holes for archaeological digs or, later, making up songs on the back porch with those two weird guys, the two Davids — we never knew which one was her boyfriend, and they looked just the same, anyway. My mother and I would be inside making things, or using little paintbrushes to paint the things we had made. She could make four dots of paint look exactly like a dog, or a dragonfly, or a bunch of grapes. I was desperate to know how she did that. I gripped my little paintbrush in my sweaty hand, trying to make my dots look like hers. My mother draped raspberry-colored silk over my bed like…


Meet the Author

STACEY D’ERASMO is a recipient of Guggenheim and Stegner Fellowships, the author of three previous novels and a book of nonfiction, The Art of Intimacy. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times (Magazine and Book Review), Bookforum, and Ploughshares, among others. She teaches in Columbia University's MFA program.

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The Sky Below 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
She dashes in, grabs Ariel, and drags her out.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
That's nice. *Returns to his cage.*