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Man Gone Downby Michael Thomas
Winner of the 2009 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award
Synopses & Reviews
Beautifully written, insightful, and devastating first novel, Man Gone Down is about a young black father of three in a biracial marriage trying to claim a piece of the American Dream he has bargained on since youth.
On the eve of the unnamed narrator's thirty-fifth birthday, he finds himself broke, estranged from his white Boston Brahmin wife and three children, and living in the bedroom of a friend's six-year-old child. He has four days to come up with the money to keep his family afloat, four days to try to make some sense of his life. He's been getting by working construction jobs though he's known on the streets as "the professor," as he was expected to make something out of his life. Alternating between his past — as a child in inner-city Boston, he was bussed to the suburbs as part of the doomed attempts at integration in the 1970s — and the preset in New York City where he is trying mightily to keep his children in private schools, we learn of his mother's abuses, his father's abandonment, raging alcoholism, and the best and worst intentions of a supposedly integrated America.
This is an extraordinary debut. It is a story of the American Dream gone awry, about what it's like to feel preprogrammed to fail in life — and the urge to escape that sentence. Michael Thomas's writing recalls some of the great American masters, including Ralph Ellison, but his debut is wholly and distinctly an original. Man Gone Down is a dazzling addition to the literature of and about America today.
"Born poor, black and brilliant in a Boston ghetto, the unnamed man of the title is, at 35, crashing at a friend's place in New York , trying to scrape up enough money to keep his family afloat. As he reluctantly returns to the construction jobs that he thought he'd left behind and works to collect on old debts (and defer his own), he narrates his Boston bildung and traces his early years and the history of his relationship with his white Boston Brahmin wife, Claire. His childhood was marked by parental neglect and early experiments with heavy alcohol consumption. A natural writer, he was taken under the wing of a prominent black intellectual during his college years, but didn't follow through as his relationship with Claire and then the demands of married life intensified. Now, as he struggles to support a life he isn't sure he believes in, he is tempted to return to drink, give up on his marriage and abandon his children, although Claire has demonstrated her unwavering support. For all of the introspection and occasional indulgence in self-pity, the narrator retains a note of hard-won optimism, and Thomas resolutely steers him clear of sentimentality." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"In many ways, the main character in Michael Thomas' first novel, 'Man Gone Down,' is a 21st-century man with a mid-20th-century sensibility. Like the characters of Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry, whom he references throughout the novel with recognizable phrases, themes and quotes, Thomas' unnamed narrator is a black man concerned with identity in a decidedly white America. So... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) much so that early in the novel when the narrator's family awaits the arrival of some Caucasian visitors and we are told, 'The Whites were coming,' it's enough to make a reader scream, 'Okay, already! I get it.' But Thomas has just begun to plumb the intricacies of race, identity and place in America. And it is not a calm examination. Thomas imbues the story with an intense pace and urgency as he explores masculinity, humanity and where the narrator — a self-proclaimed 'social experiment' — fits in. The narrator is desperate. He is a husband, father, failed scholar, unpublished author and recovering alcoholic who wonders if he is just 'too damaged.' At age 35, he needs money to put a roof over his family's head, to pay his sons' private-school tuition and to stop living on the charity of a not-quite-friend. He also must prove to himself and a world that once saw him so 'full of light — full of promise' that he can navigate life in post-9/11 New York, make good, reasoned choices and measure up to the yearning he sees in his wife's green eyes for him to be a responsible man, 'good in a crisis.' And he feels he must accomplish all this in a matter of days before his family returns from visiting his distant, disapproving mother-in-law in Massachusetts. With his tenuous grasp on sobriety and his wavering sense of self, the narrator's struggle to succeed becomes more and more uncertain. With an urgent to-do list in his hand and the voices and dreams of his loved ones in his head, sleep-deprived and refusing to eat, he stumbles, then strides, then stumbles again through his days and nights. Searching everywhere from the sky overhead to the corner bodega for answers and direction, this postmodern Everyman attempts to blaze a trail through a recalcitrant America that refuses to face its racial confusion. One indication of the narrator's confusion is that he often hears in his head his mother's old soul favorites by Al Green, Otis Redding and Curtis Mayfield. However, when he strums his guitar, it is the music of white America — Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan — that he plays and that truly guides him. Thomas, a fine writer, can produce beautiful prose. The narrator's small sons and daughters 'wore the confused look of children who've just finished watching television.' His descriptions of the make-do jobs held by the protagonist's mother while he was growing up and of a friend's beatings at the hands of his father are vivid, graphic and poignant enough to leave a knot in the reader's stomach. The more quotidian sections are just as haunting. Recounting the narrator's late-night run in the city without a warmup, Thomas writes, 'Things bind up and creak and grind. I breathe short and shallow. My sternum aches and I remember my father and his father and prepare to die alone, late night on the asphalt.' But the writing is uneven throughout, perhaps reflecting the narrator's uneasy grasp on his world, perhaps the book's need for a stricter editorial hand. Either way, it tends to leave the reader caring deeply about the narrator in one chapter and frustrated with him in the next. In the end, the novel itself is rather like its main character: a brilliant and frustrating social experiment that is still quite worthy of our attention." Reviewed by Harold Holzer, author of 'Lincoln at Cooper Union,' which won a Lincoln PrizeMatt Schudel, a Washington Post staff writerCarolyn See, who can be reached at www.carolynsee.comPatrick Anderson, whose e-mail address is mondaythrillers(at symbol)aol.comTina McElroy Ansa, whose fifth novel, 'Taking After Mudear,' will be published in the fall, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"The scope of Thomas's project is prodigious....He has an exceptional eye for detail, and the poetry of his descriptive digressions...provides some respite from the knowledge that the city he loves can truly crush a man's spirit." New York Times
"[A] fine, richly textured work." Boston Globe
"Thomas has written a rhapsodic and piercing post-9/11 lament over aggression, greed, and racism, and a ravishing blues for the soul's unending loneliness." Booklist
"Michael Thomas is a thoughtful, intelligent, ambitious writer and Man Gone Down is an impressive first effort. Literature — and the world — would be well served by more like him." Martha Southgate
"Once in a great while a voice comes along that staggers us with its vitality, strength, and timeliness. Michael Thomas is one of those writers, and he's been gifted with a dynamic voice as well as with a story worthy of our attention." David Haynes
On the eve of his thirty-fifth birthday, the unnamed black narrator of Man Gone Down finds himself broke, estranged from his white wife and three children, and living in the bedroom of a friends six-year-old child. He has four days to come up with the money to keep the kids in school and make a down payment on an apartment for them in which to live. As we slip between his childhood in inner city Boston and present-day New York City, we learn of a life marked by abuse, abandonment, raging alcoholism, and the best and worst intentions of a supposedly integrated America. This is a story of the American Dream gone awry, about what its like to feel preprogrammed to fail in life and the urge to escape that sentence.
About the Author
Michael Thomas was born and raised in Boston. He received his B.A. from Hunter College and his M.F.A. from Warren Wilson College. He teaches at Hunter College and lives in Brooklyn with his wife and three children.
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