This Side of Brightness

THIS SIDE OF BRIGHTNESS consists of alternating chapters featuring two men of different generations. Treefrog’s story begins in 1991. This half-crazed homeless man lives in an abandoned tunnel, surviving by scavenging cans and bottles. Nathan Walker’s story begins in 1916. The powerful African American’s dangerous occupation is digging tunnels under New York City. Their lives have no apparent connection. Treefrog seems frozen in time, while Nathan’s story carries him through the decades until the reader realizes the two stories are destined to collide in present time.

Nathan marries Maura O’Leary, a white woman, generating hatred and overt aggression among their white neighbors. They have three children. When Maura is killed by a drunk driver, their son Clarence kills the offender, flees to Georgia, and is murdered by the Atlanta police. Clarence has fathered a son, who grows up with grandfather Nathan and eventually becomes a daredevil high-rise construction worker. He marries and has a daughter.

The now elderly, arthritic Nathan is killed by a train while he and his grandson are trespassing in a tunnel Nathan worked on in his youth. Clarence, Jr., overwhelmed with guilt for not saving his beloved grandfather, becomes a hopeless alcoholic, then loses his family when his wife learns he has been molesting their prepubescent daughter. The reader finally understands that the self-hating, self-mutilating, photophobic Treefrog is none other than Nathan’s once proud, courageous grandson.

Colum McCann, the Dublin-born author of this grim, intricate, often poetic novel, spent years researching the history of New York’s myriad tunnels and interviewing the bizarre outcasts who hide in those stygian mazes.