Guest contributor: Bill Lundgren
categories: Cocktail Hour / Reading Under the Influence
[Author disclaimer: During portions of my reading of the following novel I was in a bit of a narcotic haze after hip replacement surgery–BL]
There are authors we read for the deeply satisfying and exquisite sensual pleasure to be found in their words. These writers may demur, claiming the story to be the thing, stepping into the pages of their novels is to enter a different, sharper, more immediate reality, a place of heightened senses and the lurking expectation that something important about existence might be revealed at any moment: think Ondaatjie, Harrison, Didion, Toibin… Colum McCann’s most recent work, Transatlantic reaffirms his inclusion in this company.
Transatlantic, like McCann’s previous novel, the National Book Award winning Let the Great World Spin, is a series of seemingly disparate stories that by novel’s end reveal the common fulcrum around which they pivot. The first tale is that of two aviators devoted to the notion that the bomber they flew during the recently concluded Great War might be turned to more noble pursuits–like crossing the Atlantic Ocean. Then we read of Frederick Douglass‘ journey to Ireland in the middle of the 19th century to enlist support for the Abolitionist cause and finally, in a story that will resonate with Maine readers, McCann offers up a beautifully understated account of the triumph of George Mitchell in accomplishing the impossible: brokering a peace between the north and south of Ireland, a process that consumed 5 years and an almost preternatural patience on the part of the former senator from Maine. Weaving this gorgeous triad of strands together is the tale of four generations of women whose stories bob and weave throughout, like a pod of dolphins escorting the mother ship to shore.
What draws me to McCann is his ability to reassure us that despite the evil we confront every day, things will be OK. Whether the horrors of 9/11 or the soul-sucking evil of slavery or the seemingly irreconcilable troubles rending apart Ireland, we will persevere. And he accomplishes this without resorting to treacly or preachy sentimentality As Mitchell says during a particularly discouraging moment in the interminable negotiations, “Generations of mothers will understand this. I do not find it sentimental at all, no, never, not that. Cynicism is easy. An optimist is a braver cynic… Think about it… it’s simple enough. We’re forced to change because we’re forced to remember. And we’re forced to remember when we’re forced to confront.”
[Bill Lundgren is a writer and blogger, also a bookseller at Longfellow Books in Portland, Maine (“A Fiercely Independent Community Bookstore”). He keeps a bird named Ruby, and teaches at Southern Maine Community College. He is now in possession of a new hip.]