The critically acclaimed debut novel from the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Overstory and the forthcoming Bewilderment.
“A writer of blistering intellect . . . [Powers is] a novelist of ideas and a novelist of witness, and in both respects, he has few American peers.” — Richard Eder, Los Angeles Times
In the spring of 1914, renowned photographer August Sander took a photograph of three young men on their way to a country dance. This haunting image, capturing the last moments of innocence on the brink of World War I, provides the central focus of Powers’s brilliant and compelling novel.
As the fate of the three farmers is chronicled, two contemporary stories unfold. The young narrator becomes obsessed with the photo, while Peter Mays, a computer writer in Boston, discovers he has a personal link with it. The three stories connect in a surprising way and offer the reader a glimpse into a mystery that spans a century of brutality and progress.
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About the Author
Date of Birth:June 18, 1957
Place of Birth:Evanston, Illinois
Education:M.A., University of Illinois, 1979
Read an Excerpt
For a third of a century, I got by nicely without Detroit. First off, I don't do well in cars and have never owned one. The smell of anything faintly resembling car seats gives me motion sickness. That alone had always ranked Motor City a solid third from bottom of American Cities I'd Like to See. I always rely on scenery to deaden the inconvenience of travel, and "Detroit scenery" seemed as self-contradictory as "movie actress," "benign cancer," "gentlemen of the press,"' or "American Diplomacy." For my entire conscious life I'd successfully ignored the city. But one day two years ago, Detroit ambushed me before I could get out of its way.
The Early Riser out of Chicago dropped me off alongside Grand Trunk Station, a magnificent building baptized in marble but now lying buried in plywood. I lugged my bag-and-a-half into the terminal, a public semi darkness stinking of urine and history. Subpoenaed relatives met their arriving parties under the glow of a loudspeaker that issued familiar, reassuring tunes.
One hundred years ago, the Grand Trunk must have quickened pulses. Pillars of American Municipal balanced a fifty-foot vault on elaborate Corinthian capitals: America copying England copying France copying Rome copying the Greeks. A copper dome with ceramic floral trim bore the obligatory inscriptions from Cicero and Bill Taft. Now the station's opulence left it a mausoleum, empty except for the Early Riser executives who threaded the rotunda in single file.
I fell automatically into line,sensing the station's lavout. The soaring ceiling seemed out of proportion to the size of the hall. When my eyes adjusted to Detroit's industrial-grade light, I received a shock, the same shock I had felt as a child when, at a public swimming pool, I saw an old vet unstrap and remove his leg before taking a dip. The antique terminal had been similarly amputated: the corridor I walked down was not the station's length but only its width. The Grand Trunk had been sent packing: plywood sheets boarded off palatial wings and multiple gates, leaving only this reduced chicken run between a lone arrival platform and the main exit.
Transferring trains in Detroit was the cheapest if not the most expedient way of getting from Chicago to Boston. Drastically cut fares promoted a new route, the Technoliner, for the first month of its run. The line subsequently folded, the technolinees long ago for saking Detroit for Houston and northern California, and even longer ago forsaking trains for planes. Another case of our railway being behind schedule. Nevertheless, I sank as low as Toledo to take advantage of the reduced fare.
When I'm in money, I can leave half-eaten meals in restaurants along with the best. I've worked hard at overcoming a natural stinginess. But when I'm out of money-a cyclical occurrence. paralleling America's boom/bust economy of the last century-I easily fall back on old habits. This trip found me once again short, having just spent a year in the Illinois backwoods on a small business project that did not pan out. "'Pan out" comes, I assume, from the prospectors' days. Flash in the pan. I spent my early thirties in isolation, chasing flashes in the pan.
With my technical background, I knew that I could find work in Boston providing I could put down a security deposit on an efficiency and still, have enough cash left over to dry-clean my interview suit. My money margin, marginalia in this case, did not worry me so much as the immediate problem of how to spend the six hours between the Early Riser and the Technoliner in a city I had, until then, celebrated by avoiding. It was me against motion sickness in the city autos built.
But as sometimes happens when killing time, I would come across something in my brief Detroit layover that would kill not just six hours but the next year and more before I came to terms with it. Sifting the downtown for novelties that might deaden ten minutes, I did not imagine ihat the next ten months would find me obsessed with everything I could learn about Motor City and the fifth-grade farmer who put it on the map.
When I made my stopover, Detroit had already been undergoing a manufactured and heavily publicized rebirth for some time. The emblem of this new era, the Renaissance Center, may be the single most ambitious building project of recent times. Its five black towers outscale the rest of the city the way Chartres Cathedral dwarfs its surrounding town. Four cylinders flank a central, massive pillar, each hanging black glass over girders in disguised International Style.
But if the city were not already dead, would it need a rebirth? The name "Renaissance Center" resembles an ad campaign declaring Sudso "All the cleaner you'll ever need,"or a restaurant assuring, "What we serve is really a meal." And just as when telling an old widower that he looks well we mean he ought, not to push his luck, the leading citizens of Detroit, in naming the Renaissance Center, implied that they would be pleased if the city could, at this point, break even.
The size and opulence of the center meant to attract tourists and conventioneers into double-A, self-contained luxury. The pal-ace executed its purpose too well. It drew people(read money) up and away from the surrounding businesses, and because the towers were so self-sufficient a village, the people never came back out. The area surrounding the Renaissance Center showed the signs of a hasty evacuation and rout. Gravitating toward the towers, I passed row on row of brick, triple-decked residences standing vacant, their windows and doors broken open to reveal nothing inside.I figured that the Renaissance Center (dubbed the Ren Cen by those who make a living truncating all words into monosyllables)