A Desperate To-Do List

By Tina McElroy Ansa,
whose fifth novel, "Taking After Mudear," will be published in the fall
Wednesday, April 25, 2007

MAN GONE DOWN

By Michael Thomas

Black Cat. 428 pp. Paperback, $14

In many ways, the main character in Michael Thomas's first novel, "Man Gone Down," is a 21st-century man with a mid-20th-century sensibility. Like the characters of Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry, whom he references throughout the novel with recognizable phrases, themes and quotes, Thomas's unnamed narrator is a black man concerned with identity in a decidedly white America. So much so that early in the novel when the narrator's family awaits the arrival of some Caucasian visitors and we are told, "The Whites were coming," it's enough to make a reader scream, "Okay, already! I get it." But Thomas has just begun to plumb the intricacies of race, identity and place in America.

And it is not a calm examination. Thomas imbues the story with an intense pace and urgency as he explores masculinity, humanity and where the narrator -- a self-proclaimed "social experiment" -- fits in.

The narrator is desperate. He is a husband, father, failed scholar, unpublished author and recovering alcoholic who wonders if he is just "too damaged." At age 35, he needs money to put a roof over his family's head, to pay his sons' private-school tuition and to stop living on the charity of a not-quite-friend. He also must prove to himself and a world that once saw him so "full of light -- full of promise" that he can navigate life in post-9/11 New York, make good, reasoned choices and measure up to the yearning he sees in his wife's green eyes for him to be a responsible man, "good in a crisis." And he feels he must accomplish all this in a matter of days before his family returns from visiting his distant, disapproving mother-in-law in Massachusetts.

With his tenuous grasp on sobriety and his wavering sense of self, the narrator's struggle to succeed becomes more and more uncertain. With an urgent to-do list in his hand and the voices and dreams of his loved ones in his head, sleep-deprived and refusing to eat, he stumbles, then strides, then stumbles again through his days and nights. Searching everywhere from the sky overhead to the corner bodega for answers and direction, this postmodern Everyman attempts to blaze a trail through a recalcitrant America that refuses to face its racial confusion.

One indication of the narrator's confusion is that he often hears in his head his mother's old soul favorites by Al Green, Otis Redding and Curtis Mayfield. However, when he strums his guitar, it is the music of white America -- Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan -- that he plays and that truly guides him. Thomas, a fine writer, can produce beautiful prose. The narrator's small sons and daughters "wore the confused look of children who've just finished watching television." His descriptions of the make-do jobs held by the protagonist's mother while he was growing up and of a friend's beatings at the hands of his father are vivid, graphic and poignant enough to leave a knot in the reader's stomach. The more quotidian sections are just as haunting. Recounting the narrator's late-night run in the city without a warmup, Thomas writes, "Things bind up and creak and grind. I breathe short and shallow. My sternum aches and I remember my father and his father and prepare to die alone, late night on the asphalt."

But the writing is uneven throughout, perhaps reflecting the narrator's uneasy grasp on his world, perhaps the book's need for a stricter editorial hand. Either way, it tends to leave the reader caring deeply about the narrator in one chapter and frustrated with him in the next. In the end, the novel itself is rather like its main character: a brilliant and frustrating social experiment that is still quite worthy of our attention.


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