In Markus Zusak’s Bridge of Clay, the five Dunbar young men – Matthew, Rory, Henry, Clayton and Thomas – have, since the death of their mother, Penny, and the abandonment by their father, Michael, formed a wild gang with their menagerie of animals. Brutal and violent to each other, the boys embody the term “toxic masculinity”. When Michael returns after a long absence wanting help to build a bridge, it’s only Clay who responds. His task is also metaphorical as he attempts to restore his fractured family. Matthew, the eldest, narrates the story of the bridge as well as that of the boys’ parents, in flashbacks from their childhoods.
Zusak’s writing is at once intensely physical and intensely internal. Fighting in all its forms is one of his preoccupations throughout his work and here it’s present in blood-spraying, tooth-loosening glory. Clay, especially, is compulsively attracted to pain, but Zusak’s violence is not gratuitous. “It’s a mystery, even to me sometimes, how boys and brothers love,” Matthew thinks, when Henry gives Clay a “friendly slap to the ear”. This is a story about men, and the women – Penny, Michael’s first wife, Abbey, Clay’s jockey girlfriend, Carey – who exist to give the males a reason for their emotions. “Boxing gloves, legs and breasts. That’s all they ever bonded with,” says Matthew, of his brothers.
The Dunbar men’s inability to communicate in any way other than the physical means we rarely hear meaningful dialogue, so the emotional weight of the story rests on Matthew’s internal voice, but it’s incongruous for this 20-something, blue-collar, knockabout man. Matthew has the same poetic omniscience as Death, Zusak’s previous narrator, explained unconvincingly as hearsay. Some of Matthew’s allusions come courtesy of his mother’s obsession with Homer, which features often, including in Clay’s heroic task, her own name, Penelope, and the boys’ pets’ names, such as their mule Achilles.
Critiquing Zusak’s style is probably irrelevant to the reception of Bridge of Clay, the follow-up to his 2005 phenomenon, The Book Thief. His millions of fans worldwide will no doubt adore it. But while the gorgeous parts of this novel – and there are several, sprinkled through its almost-600 pages, in Zusak’s trademark single-sentence poems/paragraphs – are moving, they would be even more moving if they weren’t so aware of themselves, and so padded by a confusing chronology and discursive, flabby fillers. LS
Picador, 592, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 6, 2018 as "Markus Zusak, Bridge of Clay".
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