Thomas, Michael. Man Gone Down. Black Cat 2007. F;5/12.
I thought at first Thomas might be like Zsuzsi Gartner: a starting-out author who hasn’t found his feet yet, but I ended up feeling that really he’s in the wrong genre. I alternated between dying to find out what was going to happen next and being driven crazy by undergraduate-level silliness.
Aspirationally autobiographical (if it isn’t there needs to be some kind of disclaimer) no-name hero (um…. six foot three, good-looking, athletic, musical enough to blow away a room with his guitar and vocals, attractive to every woman that comes within 50 m of him (there are many, all trailing open invitations), a professor of English, protégé of a legendary academic, and married to a gorgeous rich white girl with whom he has three ideal children) is however having problems. Fair enough, we are told he was raped as a young boy,his parents were less than attentive (both alcoholic, father took off intermittently), and his best friends from school are shown to be addicted or psychotic, although as you’d expect from such an uber-mensch they are intellectual and fascinating in the lost-generation style. But we don’t get the impression that any, or all, of this is really what ails him. Whatever the hell it is the result is he doesn’t seem able to make a living never mind his academic qualifications and straight-edge natural ability as a carpenter.
So what is the problem? Well apart from needing to come up with many many thousands of dollars in the next 48 hours to get his kids back in private school and keep him and his wife living in the New York manner her mother expects, and our gentle suspicion that (because he’s black) we’re supposed to slip into a metonymy of “trouble” equals “racial discrimination”, we don’t really get to find out, because again and again legitimately brokenhearted black America gets lost in this kind of stuff:
And I don’t know much about gods except that if the one or the many do exist, it must be a terrible thing to be prayed to — you’re perpetually multiplying changes calling out in their perpetually expanding voice to be heard and for you to make yourself known by using yourself in everything — but as a mystery, because the choice of a God revealing itself is to either perplex or overwhelm. So you come shrouded or in flashes — something moving quickly past the senses. But there is something — that dark twist in the water; the vanished river in the rubble shore; that bird, fixed in the air, betraying this planet’s wobble — but I hold onto something that enters me then transforms, like the way the smell of the salt in the air flattens and extends the promontory, and I see from inside the river’s mouth open.
… or words to such effect. And things lapse that way often enough that poor reader might be forgiven for skipping even the nicely-placed descriptive riffs that intensify suspense about what’s going to happen next. We want to get on with the life plot, and he wants to sell us internal or political or metaphysical plot, because as a creative writing professor that’s what you’re supposed to do, I guess. I reach this analysis as the best explanation for the breathtaking voltage drop between plot development and metaphysical speculation.
It’s an exciting hard-to-put-down (unless you fall asleep during the long philosophical sections) book and we don’t know, and want to find out, what’s going to happen, until the very end. Recipe for a great thriller, right? There is championship jock suspense in his golf game with a Bentley-full of rich guys (he is of course, although broke, a scratch handicap who hasn’t played for a year but still can put the ball out 300 yards with a five iron) when he desperately needs the several thousand dollars at stake. Fantastic, but oh my lord what an awful lot of the stoned free association to plough through to get to the high-stakes golf.
Mr. Thomas should write a thriller with his imaginary self as the hero, make five million, and quit his job at the university. Nothing wrong with fantasizing about being bulletproof and able to fly but I think this guy needs to lose the falsely humble pseudo-academic Clark Kent and stick to Superman.
That, or lose the stuff that doesn’t make aesthetic sense, and write some real fiction. 7.1