In the Footsteps of American Giants

by John Boland

On this side of the Atlantic, mention of literary awards automatically causes us to think of the Man Booker Prize, the Costa, the Impac and maybe — if we’re Francophiles — the Prix Goncourt. As regards awards on the other side of the ocean, only the Pulitzer Prize has achieved an international reputation.

Yet perhaps the most prestigious honour a writer can be given in the United States comes in the form of the National Book Awards, founded in 1950 by a consortium of publishers and bestowed yearly in four categories: fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and literature for young people.

The award’s commitment to serious and enduring literature becomes clear when you look down the list of past fiction winners.

Here’s a brief selection: William Faulkner’s Collected Stories (1951), Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1953), John Cheever’s The Wapshot Chronicles(1958), Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus (1960), Saul Bellow’s Herzog (1965), Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer (1967), Flannery O’Connor’s Collected Stories (1972), Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1974), William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice (1980), John Updike’s Rabbit is Rich (1982), Don de Lillo’s White Noise (1985), Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses (1992), Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News (1993), Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain (1997) and Jonathan Frantzen’s The Corrections (2001).

What’s striking about that list is that all of these books are now regarded as classics and have become an essential part of the reading experience of anyone interested in modern, imaginative literature. Indeed, unlike many previous Booker winners, there are few foolish or merely fashionable choices.

What’s also striking, of course, is that all of these books have been written by Americans — in fact, according to the official website, the awards were set up “to enhance the public’s awareness of exceptional books written by fellow Americans”. And it is this that makes Colum McCann’s achievement —winning this year’s prize for fiction — all the more remarkable.

Indeed, trawling through the awards website, I can’t identify any book by a non-American author that even made the shortlist in the 60 years of the prize.

So why this outsider? Well, as I wrote recently when I reviewed McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, it is not just an exceptional novel, it’s a very American novel.

McCann, who’s now 44 years old, may have been born and educated in Dublin, but it was clear even from his early stories that he wasn’t easily categorised as an Irish writer.

Uninterested in old pieties, he never aligned himself to any Irish cultural trend or clique, and whether that was due to personal diffidence or artistic fastidiousness is really neither here nor there.

He always seemed something of an outsider and thus some of us weren’t surprised when he departed for America in the 1980s, first on visits and then permanently, setting up his own family life in Manhattan and setting out his artistic inclinations there, too.

In this he differed from other notable literary exiles. James Joyce left Dublin for good at the age of 22 yet never wrote about anywhere else for the next 37 years. Maeve Brennan was taken by her parents to America when she was 17, but almost all of her best work can be found in her wrenching chronicles of family life back in Ranelagh’s Cherryfield Avenue.

And William Trevor, while making sure to maintain a geographical remove (mainly in Devon) from the Ireland in which he grew up, has written his finest stories about the Ireland he left as a young man — indeed, declaring himself as more an outsider in England than here.

But this isn’t true of McCann, whose most ambitious work has been located a long way from the four green fields that were his home — whether going underground with the dispossessed and socially forgotten among the subway tunnels of New York in This Side of Brightness, taking on the challenge of imagining the life and art of Rudolf Nureyev in Dancer or, in Zoli, conjuring up the world of Romany gypsies.

It was perhaps tempting for sceptical Irish readers to raise an eyebrow at these exotic excursions, the parochial temperament wondering: what’s wrong with Ireland as a subject? If it was good enough for Yeats, Joyce, O’Casey, O’Connor and McGahern, who’s this upstart to spurn its richness as material for creativity?

And I have to say that I wasn’t always persuaded that these fictional imaginings were much more than ingenious exercises that didn’t make the reader feel fully engaged with the characters — I felt the sense of truly experienced and rendered life that one gets from great fiction was somehow missing.

But such reachings out bespoke a restlessness, not just with time-honoured Irish themes but also with what fiction was for and with how he could bring his gifts to bear on a theme that wholly engaged or maybe even engulfed him.
He found it in Let the Great World Spin, a book for which I was completely unprepared. Indeed, when I read that he was about to publish a “9/11 novel” I groaned at the obviousness of the idea and of the notion that here was yet another novelist attempting to grapple with a bewildering subject that had defeated the best efforts of those who’d already tried to come to terms with it — including Don DeLillo in his brave but unsatisfactory Falling Man.
However, all doubts about the seeming impossibility of the task McCann had set himself were swept away as the book shifted in its first 60 pages from a radical Irish monk in the Bronx to a bereaved Manhattan socialite mourning the son who’d died in Vietnam.

Here were two extraordinarily persuasive characters being inhabited by a writer who was uncannily attuned to their utterly disparate voices, and when he then proceeded to conjure up a succession of other voices and other lives, all one could do was marvel at the confidence of someone in full command of his characters and of the ways in which their 1970s predicaments and hopes would resonate almost 30 years later.
And his command of structure was such that a linking device which initially seemed as if it would be clunky and tacked-on (Philippe Petit’s high-wire walk between the World Trade Centre towers) is woven through the action with such assurance that it becomes a compelling motif.

This, then, is a major book by an Irish writer, but it has been honoured by the National Book Awards judges because it’s also a very American book in its tone and in its sympathy with the fears, frailties and aspirations of those who, nine Septembers ago, experienced the shuddering sense of life’s precariousness that the author captures in these pages.

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