Books

Colum McCann
Thirteen Ways of Looking

The words of Dublin-born writer Colum McCann sing with poetry. There’s poetry in the story of a day in the life of an elderly New York judge that ends in murder. There’s poetry in the story within a story of a homesick marine passing a New Year’s Eve in her isolated Afghan outpost. There’s even poetry in the torment of an Irish mother whose adopted Russian son runs off, and in the determination of an old nun to confront the right-wing thug who once tortured her in Colombia. It is explicit in the title story, in which he proposes a similarity between the work of poets and homicide detectives, both sifting through the evidence searching for the “random word” that will make “the poem itself so much more precise”. I suspect that fans of Dorothy Porter will adore McCann. 

McCann has made his own poem so precise that phrases, sentences, whole paragraphs leap off the page, demanding to be read aloud, shared. A woman seeing her ex-husband’s newly mannered sartorial style thinks: “He looked as if he had dressed himself in the third person.” The elderly judge, mourning his late wife and recalling how she used to read Pasternak to him in bed, reflects: “The roof over our love has been torn off and is open now to the endless sky.” 

Bad things happen to good people in these stories, and they happen quickly, or the threat appears out of nowhere: a blow to the back of the skull from an unknown assailant, the sight of shoes abandoned by a treacherous sea, the ominous dark of the Afghan night, the sudden revisitation of a nightmare in the shape of a face on TV. Everyone yearns for someone or something that is missing – a loved one who is dead or far away, or sometimes love itself, or just the happy and innocent past before things changed. 

If saudade infuses this collection, it is blended with wry and mordant wit. In one of many such delightful passages, the judge recalls the long-lost etiquette of newspaper-folding on the commuter trains: “The choreographed commute. An early morning ballet. They could sit in rows of three, knee to knee, turn the pages and still never touch elbows … When the world was respectful and polite.” 

It is no longer thus. Yet McCann suggests that there still exists the possibility of grace.  CG

Bloomsbury, 256pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 14, 2015 as "Colum McCann, Thirteen Ways of Looking". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: CG