We never know his name. But the African-American protagonist of Michael Thomas’ masterful debut, Man Gone Down, will stay with readers for a long time. He lingers because this extraordinary novel comes to us from a writer of enthralling voice and startling insight. Tuned urgently to the way we live now, the winner of the International Dublin IMPAC Prize 2009 is a novel brilliant in its scope and energy, and deeply moving in its human warmth.
The first person narrator in Man Gone Down has not fallen, yet. But he stands at a precipice. A black man from Boston married to a white woman with whom he has three children. A once promising Harvard student now broke and working in construction in Brooklyn. When we meet the narrator, he’s had to leave his wife and children with his disapproving mother-in-law, and now has just four days to raise the money necessary to reunite the family and return the children to school.
“If you’ve ever been broke – really broke,” he observes, “there are two things you know about being so: the universe is constantly conspiring to keep you that way…”
So unfolds the richly textured four-day drama of individual survival set against the myth of an integrated and racially normalized America. “It’s strange to go through life as a social experiment,” muses the man who had been bused and tested as a youth, “groomed for leadership”, and who now remembers the great men – Ghandi, King, Jackie Robinson, Malcolm X – as posters on the wall of a childhood bedroom.
Thomas’ novel shows, in unsentimental clarity, the way the future can close mercilessly on those marginalized by race and social circumstance. “Not a train,” as he writes about the cadences of the blues, “but something coming down the track under its own unconscious locomotion.” At the same time, Man Gone Down is a superb illustration of how each moment of the present, for all of us, is braided with the past: slights and nosebleeds, lost parents and double rainbows over long-ago weddings. Memories haunt and drive the present, in this novel, even as the future presses. So on a late-night run through Brooklyn, the ash cloud of 9/11 advances in memory: “again and again, crossing the water, coming to us like a late-Cretaceous plume of postfire.”
In his four days of increasing desperation, Thomas’ narrator takes us to dark interior places, where love is questioned and life must be contemplated as an “an imploded star”. But there is always hope. In my end (as Eliot is invoked) is my beginning. And here the novel HITS its truest notes, revealing that second thing to be learned from the condition of being really broke: “that the universe is plotting your redemption as well: when all fortunes are reversed.”
To say how, or even if, this reversal is achieved would spoil the exhilarating climax of this magnificent book, a work that brings Bellow as much as Ellison to mind. At the novel’s close, we still do not know the narrator’s name, but we feel him. And having been at the deepest sites of his struggle, we are changed by him as well. Man Gone Down is a novel that will resonate long into the future, a work that devastates and rebuilds, but is attuned always to the human yearning that is the story’s beating heart.