Man Gone Down

Posted on August 10, 2009


This novel made the Times ‘Top 10 of the Year’ list—a credential I admit to being easily wooed by—and the praise seems to keep flooding in (Kaiama Glover’s glowing review is just the tip; the book also grabbed the Impac Dublin Prize, which brought debut novelist Michael Thomas a cool $140,000 reward). So is it a masterpiece?

No. I think the praise, unfortunately, might have been unwarranted, or at least was too quickly, giddily doled out. I will say, however, that for all its faults, this novel does give us a character we can really root for (namely, an unnamed black man who is clearly a surrogate for Thomas himself, and a thinly-veiled one at that, based on my research into the author’s background). The story, however familiar, is stirring and keeps the pages moving, though not at breakneck speed.

Indeed, there are some wonderful parts to this novel. As a whole, it’s probably easy for many readers to finish the last page, close the book, and forget the many clunky moments. I’m sure many walk away with only positive recollections, and a general impression that this was a terrific book. It seems like most of the reviewers chose to do that, but personally I could not forget. There were too many awkward bumps along the way.

First of all (and this, I suppose, doesn’t reflect poorly on the writing itself, since it doesn’t change the plot or the emotions or the tone, but I do think it just plain looks bad), my copy—the standard white paperback from Black Cat/Grove Atlantic—was rife with typos and editing errors. It was strange, in fact, to be reading a novel and find so many mistakes. I kind of couldn’t believe it. I’m sure many people could have overlooked these, or not minded, but careless errors always leap out at me, and in this case they tinged my reading experience from the start. One common mistake involved erroneous quotation marks, such as on 68 when a character says: “Can you make more than a full-time sitter?” The next line, not a line of spoken dialogue, reads: She fumbled.” It happens again further down the page: “Why don’t you? She slammed the table with her hand and went to kick it, too, but she stopped. I fingered my sternum.” The quotation marks after ‘sternum’ actually need to go after the question mark, obviously. Everything after “Why don’t you?” is not spoken dialogue, but narrative description. Someone dropped the ball here.

On 146, we run into an error that seems even more egregious: “I went for long runs along the Charles. It had seemed different when I was a boy… but now, traveling it’s narrow paths afforded me a quiet timelessness.” Confusing its and it’s is a school-boy mistake. So why did I find it in a sophisticated, award-winning piece of high literature?

One of the stranger mistakes comes when the character goes down to the river at night to send off his mother’s ashes: “I drop the book of matches in, take off my coat and boots, and wade into.” A period, right there? Wade into what? Perhaps “into” is intentional and it’s meant to be some sort of artistic flourish, an experimentation with language, but I don’t know. It seems more likely that either the word was meant to be “in” or there was a word after “into” that got left out.

Similarly, on 147, we find a word that isn’t a word: “I drank and waited, wound up hospitalized for exsposure, wandering through the late streets of wintry Cambridge.” How did that first ‘s’ make it in there? “Exsposure” is not a word. The problem of an incorrect letter being thrown into a word happens again on 217, and at a crucial moment when the narrator is actually describing a misunderstanding about syntax. He recalls when he was an English teacher and liked to read aloud the following quote to his students, “The bone’s prayer to God is death.” However, he then explains, “One day… some student raised his hand” and alerted the teacher that the sentence actually reads, “The bone’s prayer to death its God.” Then the narrator describes wanting to slap the boy because he, as a teacher, was embarrassed to have been reading the quote incorrectly for years. But clearly that “its” in the second iteration is meant to just be “is,” because the point is that the teacher confusedly switched the order of the two terms, that is, God and death. The mistake the teacher was making, I believe, was changing the order of the quote, not confusing “its” and “is.” Perhaps Atlantic Grove needs to fire their copy editor.

But typos are the least of Man Gone Down‘s issues. And after all, they may not have been Thomas’ fault. I’d give him the benefit of the doubt, except on that sentence about “wading into.” More unfortunate are some of his stylistic devices. One of these devices, one that he favors enormously, ad nauseam, is the repetition of a line or thought, word-for-word, multiple times, often in the same couple pages. It becomes outrageously annoying, and I’m surprised no reviewer has mentioned it.

Thomas establishes many of his gimmicks very early on. The repetition begins on 9, when the narrator says, “I wonder if I’m too damaged.” He says it again, word-for-word, at the end of the same paragraph. Finally, at the bottom of the page, he riffs for the third time: “I fear, perhaps, that I’m too damaged.” At this point, of course, I did not feel I was picking up on a problem, but rather I assumed I had noticed a one-time thing, a powerful phrase repeated for strong emotional effect in this scenario only. However, all effect is lost when Thomas begins to use the same trick over, and over, and over. Did I think three times was a lot? I had seen nothing yet.

On 76, the narrator tells us, “It’s a strange thing to go through life as a social experiment.” Twenty pages later—so much that you have to wonder if Thomas figures you will have forgotten already seeing the phrase—he says for a second time, “It’s a strange thing to go through life as a social experiment.” The very next paragraph begins with number three: “It’s a strange thing to go through life as a social experiment.” Do you get the message yet? The character feels he was a social experiment! If you’ve missed that, it’s there a fourth, fifth, and sixth time, all of the repetitions coming within the next ten pages so that you’re sure to figure out what he’s doing, and to be impressed by it. Other phrases that fall victim to this gag: “I wonder what it feels like, falling out of love” (3x), “I don’t know much about rivers, but I think that I am a strong, brown god” (2x verbatim, and a third time, slightly different wording, quoted from a song), and, finally, the granddaddy of all repeated phrases in this book, variations on “teeth sucking.”

This tooth-sucking phenomenon cries for its own separate blog post.

She shakes her head, slowly, sucks her teeth, like some sex and maternal hybrid. [49]

He sucks his teeth and shakes his head. He’s very slender, jockey sized. [129]

Bing Bing sucks his teeth, though not nearly as loud as KC. [194]

He points at the baker, sucks his teeth, then points vaguely at the first few windows. [194]

“Boy,” teeth suck, “I don’t know how you g’wan clean dat.” [195]

“Yeah, don’t touch anything, she says.” He sucks his teeth again. [195]

KC’s teeth sucking, or the idiot rasping of me endlessly sanding metal. [198]

KC and Bing Bing suck their teeth in unison. [281]

He sucks his teeth and shakes his head once violently. [281]

Feeney turns to go, which draws another teeth suck. [282]

He sucks his teeth and focuses on a point just above my head. [397]

He can’t tell, but he sucks his teeth and shakes his head slowly. [403]

I’m not wrong to be slightly appalled, am I? Could anyone think this isn’t a bit much? The book’s title should be Sucking Teeth.

Moving on to the next issue, Thomas constantly inserts song lines into the narrative, always in italics so that you know you’re being educated with jazzy, hip references. The problem is that shoving one line of song lyrics into the middle of a paragraph disrupts the story, and no, not in that Joycean, artsy, ambitious way. The narrator talks about winter, and the cold, and then: “The winter wind is blowing strong, my hands ain’t got no gloves…” Or when he thinks about driving in Boston and notes that the roads are mostly straight, he adds, “This is a man’s world…” Always italics, always with the ellipsis, always unnecessary and less effective than Thomas imagined. In addition, it seems a facile way to try to add weighty meaning, as if song lines that have no real significance should automatically take on deep emotion here simply because of the context (though in fact they aren’t put in much of any context, and fail to take on any special meaning). This happens often in the book—mundane moments or details treated as opportunities for subtle significance on the issues of race and/or poverty. I kept thinking of that phrase from a Chekhov story, “To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

Finally, there’s the major connection to a greater, wonderful piece of literature—Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. This, for me, was both a positive and negative current flowing through Man Gone Down. Of course, many have pointed out the similarities, and many seem to find it perfectly fitting, natural, and skillful that Thomas references Ellison’s fabulous work in his book. However, there are so many knowing allusions to Invisible Man (as someone who just read it mere months ago I think it’s possible I caught more of them than most readers would) that at times it felt like Thomas might have decided, “I’m going to take Invisible Man and kind of just re-write it in a modern setting.” Each time that a scene or phrase or action seemed to directly parallel one from Invisible Man I wrote ‘I.M.’ in the margins, and flipping through my copy, I see ‘I.M.’ maybe eight or nine times. As I said, it’s not totally ineffective—in fact it’s probably a smart idea to link your debut novel to such a towering, important, and readable classic—but he might be stretching it too far. There is a scene reminiscent of when Ellison’s Invisible Man gets booted from college; a scene similar to when the Invisible Man walks through the streets of New York examining people’s faces; numerous mentions of light and dark and isolation (obviously these are themes not exclusive to Ellison’s writing, but relating to race in general, and they’re very relevant here, I know that); and finally, an obvious imitation or homage in Thomas’ choice to not give his protagonist a name.

Yet the most major Invisible Man reference of all comes when the hero goes golfing at a fancy country club with some white men, and he’s about to swing and remarks, “I hear them pleading, exhorting me to hit the ball straight and long, just as I hear the founder rasping from his canvas on the greak oak wall— “Swing, nigger, swing!” —and his brothers hissing in unison, “Amen.” Who could this “founder” be? I suppose it’s possible he means the founder of the country club, but that phrasing, that mentioning of “the founder” without any qualifier like “the founder of…” can only be a conscious reference to the “founder” (of the college) in Invisible Man, who plays a central role and constantly looms over the Invisible Man’s actions and struggles, judging him, making him question his path. Perhaps the point is that, duh, yes, he’s referencing Invisible Man intentionally, but the reference is so quick and out-of-context that it seems more like something else, a lifted presence of Ellison’s “founder” character without wanting to make it obvious as such.

Anyway, I like to get “the bad” over with first (though in this review that ended up being a bulky list) so that we can get to “the good.” And this book does have some wonderful elements to it. Specifically, even though I didn’t like Thomas’s writing style, there were some individual scenes and passages that blew my mind. First of all, during the chapter called “Big Nig,” the main character, after being called a “big nig” by a clumsy white guy (who gets his face punched in for it, in another great scene) begins writing his own fiction on napkins in a café. He scribbles down these short scenes (calling them “notes for a novella”) about a character named Big Nig (reminding us of Bigger Thomas from Native Son). These small scenes, which almost function like a book inside a book (the main character, writing them, already being a version of Thomas himself, now also becomes a writer, like Thomas) are wonderful, and I’d even venture to say that the writing is better than in the rest of the book, which begs the question of why Thomas saved his best stuff for quick, italicized scenes that are supposedly jotted down in a hurry by his character. Here’s a great one: “Thursday afternoon we limp to bars after work. Happy—seemingly easy and free. Then Friday breath and bile from protracted happy hours; more drinking perhaps or perhaps sleep. And you know, in your mind, the dream of weekend empire are all lies.” Wow; pitch-perfect prose. It continues to be gripping, more compulsively readable, when, on the same page, the ‘Big Nig’ story begins: “Big Nig was a schizophrenic, that’s what he was told. So one day he stopped taking his medication. Nothing happened. So he went out, to be himself—walking streets that seemed familiar and strange at the same time.” Very, very simple, but compelling. Had Thomas followed this more straightforward, bare-bones style for the body of the actual novel (rather than the repetition of phrases, song references and lyrics, and constant flights of fancy into long, abstract reveries), it may have been a different (better) read.

The other seriously excellent scene, and I would argue the crowning achievement of this book, comes at the very end and lasts for a good fifteen pages. It takes place at a fancy golf course, to which the hero is dragged by his friend Marco to play eighteen holes with three combative white guys. The entire day is described so well, and is so entertaining and surprising, it seems as though from a different book. Here’s just a taste: “I take the five iron I’ve been fondling and climb up to the tee. They try not to stare, but they do. It must look ridiculous—at least unusual… although Marco is my friend, I still haven’t dismissed the notion that this is all a setup… I wonder if they can see my legs shaking. Even the black kid is watching, and I can’t help but think that he has something invested in this moment, too—from a perverse claim to caddy shack bragging rights to the complete emancipation of his people.” He’s so nervous, and when he finally does take his first swing on hole one, and it goes well, we suddenly get this surprising, moving gem: “Buster says nothing. Both caddies grin stupidly. The black one snaps out of it and reaches for my club. I wave him off because I can tell I’m about to cry… My people were on that ball.” This is great stuff.

But as I said, moments like those are few and far between. On 252, in fact (just over halfway through the book) I see that I had written to myself or to some future borrower of my copy, “starting to get very tired of this story right about here.” The golf chapter, if anything, felt like a reward (at last!) at the end of the book for making it this far, surviving 370 pages of tedium and repetition to suddenly reach a surprisingly compelling, well-narrated story of a dramatic, tense golf outing.

I have to wonder if the critical success of Man Gone Down has been yet another case of overly generous reviewers (see the fabulous Times essay from last year about there being too many sparkling reviews given these days; I can’t find the link), or if maybe I simply missed something here. I suppose I’ll never be sure, but I can say I’m relieved to be finished with the book. I don’t regret picking it up, though.

Posted in: DBR Blog