Monday, December 14, 2009

Friday Fiction: Colum McCann: 2009 National Book Award Winner

--by Hanje Richards

Colum McCann (born February 28, 1965) is an Irish writer of literary fiction. He holds a BA from the University of Texas, is married with three children, and teaches fiction at CUNY Hunter College's Master of Fine Arts Program in Creative Writing.

In 2009, McCann was awarded the National Book Award for Let the Great World Spin, a dazzlingly rich vision of the pain, loveliness, mystery, and promise of New York City in the 1970s.

Let the Great World Spin - In the dawning light of a late-summer morning, the people of lower Manhattan stand hushed, staring up in disbelief at the Twin Towers. It is August 1974, and a mysterious tightrope walker is running, dancing, leaping between the towers, suspended a quarter mile above the ground. In the streets below, a slew of ordinary lives become extraordinary in bestselling novelist Colum McCann’s stunningly intricate portrait of a city and its people.

Corrigan, a radical young Irish monk, struggles with his own demons as he lives among the prostitutes in the middle of the burning Bronx. A group of mothers gather in a Park Avenue apartment to mourn their sons who died in Vietnam, only to discover just how much divides them even in grief. A young artist finds herself at the scene of a hit-and-run that sends her own life careening sideways. Tillie, a thirty-eight-year-old grandmother, turns tricks alongside her teenage daughter, determined not only to take care of her family but to prove her own worth.

Weaving together these and other seemingly disparate lives, McCann’s powerful allegory comes alive in the unforgettable voices of the city’s people, unexpectedly drawn together by hope, beauty, and the “artistic crime of the century.” Let the Great World Spin captures the spirit of America in a time of transition, extraordinary promise, and, in hindsight, heartbreaking innocence.

Dancer - The erotically charged story of the Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev as told through the cast of those who knew him: Anna Vasileva, Rudi's first ballet teacher, who rescues her protégé from the stunted life of his provincial town; Yulia, whose sexual and artistic ambitions are thwarted by her Soviet-sanctioned marriage; and Victor, the Venezuelan street hustler, who reveals the lurid underside of the gay celebrity set. Spanning four decades and many worlds, from the horrors of the Second World War to the wild abandon of New York in the eighties, Dancer is peopled by a large cast of characters, obscure and famous: doormen and shoemakers, nurses and translators, Margot Fonteyn, Eric Bruhn, and John Lennon. And at the heart of the spectacle stands the artist himself, willful, lustful, and driven by a never-to-be-met need for perfection.

Fishing the Sloe-Black River: Stories - The short fiction of Colum McCann documents a dizzying cast of characters in exile, loss, love, and displacement. There is the worn boxing champion who steals clothes from a New Orleans laundromat, the rumored survivor of Hiroshima who emigrates to the tranquil coast of Western Ireland, the Irishwoman who journeys through America in search of silence and solitude. But what is found in these stories, and discovered by these characters, is the astonishing poetry and peace found in the mundane: a memory, a scent on the wind, the grace in the curve of a street.

Songdogs - With unreliable memories and scraps of photographs as his only clues, Conor Lyons follows in the tracks of his father, a rootless photographer, as he moved from war-torn Spain, to the barren plains of Mexico, where he met and married Conor's mother, to the American West, and finally back to Ireland, where the marriage and the story reach their heartrending climax. As the narratives of Conor's quest and his parents' lives twine and untwine, McCann creates a mesmerizing evocation of the gulf between memory and imagination, love and loss, past and present.

This Side of Brightness - At the turn of the century, Nathan Walker comes to New York City to take the most dangerous job in the country. A sandhog, he burrows beneath the East River, digging the tunnel that will carry trains from Brooklyn to Manhattan. In the bowels of the riverbed, the sandhogs — black, white, Irish, Italian — dig together, the darkness erasing all differences. Above ground, though, the men keep their distance until a spectacular accident welds a bond between Walker and his fellow sandhogs that will both bless and curse three generations.