Where despair meets hope
Michael Thomas, surprise winner of the International Impac Dublin Literary Award, tells EILEEN BATTERSBYabout the mess of influences that inspired his debut novel dealing with an isolated individual in freefall
MICHAEL THOMAS has a smile that lights up a room; no, make that a city. He has had a couple of weeks to get used to having won this year’s International Impac Dublin Literary Award; the rest of us have had only a few hours. For him, the victory is a pure triumph, and there is no defiance.
If he ever had any doubts about his book, his full-blooded first novel that was not tipped to win, he appears to have forgotten them. “It took 17 months to write,” he says with the precision he shows when answering most questions. “I like order. The closets have to be neat because my head is such a mess.”
By “mess”, he means his mind is always full; ideas, sensations and memories rampage through his thoughts. He gets to the heart of an image, explores it, and then, lovingly, commits it to memory. Thomas must have difficulty sleeping, as it can’t be easy turning off his quicksilver imagination. His students at Hunter College in Brooklyn are to be envied, having a teacher who is obviously in love with literature and ideas, and who can speak as fluently and expansively as Thomas does. He teaches creative writing and “Eng Lit – I’m very text-based”.
He is fun, and plays with the suggestion that the reason TS Eliot is not quite as great a poet as Yeats is that he was never quite as eccentric – “And then there’s always Auden”. Whatever about the act of writing, Michael Thomas lives in the world of books. One minute he’s speaking about Nabokov, the next he’s peering at me, asking: “What do you think of Thomas Mann?” He follows up his question by saying: “ Tonio Krögerwas so important for me. I read it when I was, what, 15, and thought ‘wow!’ ”
Thomas will be 42 this coming August, but could easily pass for 25. “The light here is kind,” he says – but no lighting is that kind. He has fine, smooth, delicate features, like a young Harry Belafonte, and a dramatic fall of dreadlocks.
“My mother is from Virginia, my father was from Boston, but his family had also come from the south,” Thomas says. “So I’m from the north and the south. I have deep feelings for the south.”
As metaphysical as it is physical, Thomas’s Impac-winning book, Man Gone Down, is about an individual in freefall who finds himself identifying with a doomed exotic pet fish named Thomas Strawberry.
The unnamed narrator is having problems. An army of words is hovering about him, tormenting his consciousness, waiting to be caught, intent on being corralled into order. There is also the more urgent business of his fair-minded, if exasperated, wife’s ultimatum, requiring him to find a home for their three children and secure their school fees.
This is the story of a crack-up, the type of crack-up that happens now. It’s a narrative of our moment. It’s what happens when a writer decides to bring F Scott Fitzgerald into the 21st century.
Society has moved on, particularly US society, from the crazy glamour of Fitzgerald’s day. It is completely fragmented.
“I love The Great Gatsby – it’s my favourite book,” says Thomas who, within seconds of our being introduced, asserts an electric, hyper-literary intelligence. Here is an American informed by his tradition – Fitzgerald and Eliot (whom he refers to throughout the novel and quotes throughout the interview) may as well be sharing the table. Melville and Ralph Waldo Ellison are present too, and James Baldwin also looks in.
“I love Melville’s randomness and lunacy,” says Thomas, sighing contentedly. “I have the old movie (of Moby Dick), the one with Gregory Peck, on my laptop – I watch it three times a week.”
RACE IS A strong theme in Man Gone Down, yet the narrator (who is married to a white woman) is more preoccupied by his own outsider status, questions of his identity and that of his mixed-race children. It is about being black, but, above all, it is about the difficulties of living in one’s head in a heightened state of awareness: alert, sensitive, angry.
“Yes, living in your head – that is central to it,” agrees Thomas, “and this is the one thing that the narrator and his father both share.” There is also an expectation of failure. “Failure because it’s expected, and yet . . .”
Not surprisingly, ambivalence also undercuts the narrative. Thomas laughs. “Mom believed – believes – in the power of education. I was raised to be the next slain civil rights leader,” he says.
The youngest of three children, Thomas was born in 1967 and grew up in Boston “in what was a fully integrated neighbourhood”. Before he even begins to speak about his childhood, he acknowledges the obvious differences between being from Boston and living in New York. It can’t be easy. His face says it all.
“The manners, the lack of them, in New York!” he says. He rolls his eyes and gestures with his hands. He may look ultra-modern, far more like a rock star than a novelist, but for all his speed of subject change and enthusiastic youthful delivery, there is a gracious, old-world civility about him.
He still gets offended by New Yorkers who demand attention from the back of a queue “instead of waiting their turn when I’m in the middle, saying ‘please may I have?’ There they are behind me, growling ‘gimme’– it drives me crazy.”
There’s a brief, if telling, incident in Man Gone Downthat articulates Thomas’s dislike of unpremeditated rudeness. The narrator is playing his guitar in a club when he is offered a small device useful for tuning up in noisy places. The narrator thanks the character, a man called Craig, for the use of it, and notices (the narrator misses little, from the size of a woman’s head to a beautifully plastered wall) that “He beams at me like he’s never heard the expression.”
“Please” and “thank you” are becoming obsolete phrases in Ireland as in the rest of the world, and Thomas is well-informed about the now-dead Celtic Tiger, which played its part in destroying the social niceties of the Irish.
There are references to Ireland in Man Gone Down and Thomas smiles as if to say you can’t come from Boston without being aware of the Irish. There is no doubt that he misses Boston.
This sense of displacement runs through his novel. Boston represents many things: the Red Sox, the Tea Party that sounded the first moves towards American independence, the symphony orchestra, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. He beams at the mention of the latter. “I spent hours there,” he says. It is easy to imagine him looking at the collection. “I was weird, always looking . . . at flowers, the sky, pictures of dinosaurs, the lights of an oncoming car,” he says.
He also played sport: “I ran cross-country, played baseball and football. I was big and strong.” As he says himself, he conformed to the idea of the black boy as an athlete. Later, girls regarded him in an obviously sexual context.
Recalling a visit to Ireland when he was at high school, he says: “Maybe I was 17, a friend of mine was visiting his grandmother. We went to Belfast. We were staying in Bangor. I went for walks with her. It was noticed that I was different . The people looked at me and asked: ‘What are you doing here?’ And they lined up pints of Guinness for me to drink.”
He laughs at the memory, Thomas can tell a story, always making effective use of his eyes and his big hands. It may be about race, but poverty also dictates.
“Money is important,” he says. “We were really poor when I was growing up, but we went to private schools. Mom lied about where we living to get us in.”
His better-off black neighbours didn’t allow him to forget exactly how poor his family was. Thomas never seems bitter; he acts more amused, although he couldn’t be. As a teenager, though, he gradually went out of control.
“I didn’t think I was. In my head, I was fine,” he says. “But I was a bit crazy.”
For a while, his academic career faltered as he moved from college to college, until the girlfriend who became his wife gave him a sense of security. “I’m not an academic,” he says. “I know I teach in a college, but I’m not an academic.”
HIS NOVEL, Man Gone Down, seemed to come from nowhere. His colleagues at Hunter knew he was writing, but it was not widely discussed. The novel emerged as one of the New York Times Book Review Top 10 Best Books of the Year. In February 2007, there he was on the cover of the review, taking everyone by surprise.
“It didn’t win anything, it wasn’t shortlisted,” he points out in a neutral tone, but it had arrived. Or rather, hehad arrived. “I used to write poetry. I was accepted into a poetry course. I was accepted into a fiction course.”
Man Gone Down began life as a short story, and grew. The narrator is a less acidic variation of Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man. For Thomas, the 19th-century Russian remains an important influence. Thomas agrees that many of his masters are 19th-century writers, “but there’s also, like everybody else, Joyce”.
The relevance is obvious. Thomas has been drawn to books in which the outsider narrators may see everything but they still live within their own thoughts. He almost feels uneasy about admitting that he is not as drawn to contemporary US writing as he is to that of previous generations.
“I admire Updike,” he says carefully, “but I do have problems with his followers.”
Thomas is married to Michaele, to whom his book is dedicated. She is from Massachusetts, is white and is the mother of their three children, aged 13, 10 and eight. There are similarities between Thomas and his narrator. “He’s me and he’s not me. But his father is based on my father, who was also a philosopher,” he says. “He died three years ago.”
Thomas describes his mother as “kind of heroic” and agrees that the novel is quasi-autobiographical. It is also funny.
“I remember reading passages out to a friend, and we did cackle, but then I was also told it was gallows humour. It is dark,” he says.
In common with his narrator, Thomas’s boyhood heroes were WEB DuBois, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and the sprinters, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who staged a Black Power protest on the victory podium at the Mexico Olympics in 1968.
Aware that he is the second American Impac winner and also the second African-American winner after Edward P Jones, he says: “We’re very different writers.” Jones won in 2004 with The Known World, which went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. While The Known Worldlooks to Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Man Gone Downis the most personal novel on this year’s list and, for all its politics of race, the least political. Did Thomas expect to win? “No, I thought Junot Díaz would.”
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Díaz’s long-awaited first novel, was a frontrunner, although many observers, myself included, expected David Leavitt’s accomplished period piece, The Indian Clerk, to take the prize.
So what is special about Man Gone Down? It captures a state of mind, the point where despair meets hope. In one of its most memorable sequences, the narrator runs through New York and feels he is being pursued by something dark and menacing, none other than his fear of failure.
Many writers peer over his shoulder, not least Thomas Wolfe, from Carolina, who came to New York to make sense of his art and his country. Thomas’s narrator is engaged in a quest to regain his wife. He is a medieval knight undergoing a series of tests to win her. She says little, but her presence dominates the book.
“He is going through a bad time,” says Thomas, who is currently at work on a family memoir. “But I’d have to agree that my book is really a love story – it’s as simple as that.” As simple and as complicated as life itself.