It was a modified bomber. A Vickers Vimy. All wood and linen and wire. She was wide and lumbering, but Alcock still thought her a nippy little thing. He patted her each time he climbed onboard and slid into the cockpit beside Brown. One smooth motion of his body. Hand on the throttle, feet on the rudder bar, he could already feel himself aloft.
What he liked most of all was rising up over the clouds and then flying in clean sunlight. He could lean out over the edge and see the shadowshift on the whiteness below, expanding and contracting on the surface of the clouds.
Brown, the navigator, was more reserved—it embarrassed him to make such a fuss. He sat forward in the cockpit, keen on what clues the machine might give. He knew how to intuit the shape of the wind, yet he put his faith in what he could actually touch: the compasses, the charts, the spirit level tucked down at his feet.
It was that time of the century when the idea of a gentleman had almost become myth. The Great War had concussed the world. The unbearable news of sixteen million deaths rolled off the great metal drums of the newspapers. Europe was a crucible of bones.
Alcock had piloted air-service fighters. Small bombs fell away from the undercarriage of his plane. A sudden lightness to the machine. A kick upwards into the night. He leaned out from his open cockpit and watched the mushroom of smoke rise below. His plane leveled out and turned towards home. At times like that, Alcock craved anonymity. He flew in the dark, his plane open to the stars. Then an airfield would appear below, the razor wire illuminated like the altar of a strange church.
Brown had flown reconnaissance. He had a knack for the mathematics of flight. He could turn any sky into a series of numbers. Even on the ground he went on calculating, figuring out new ways to guide his planes home.
Both men knew exactly what it meant to be shot down.
The Turks caught Jack Alcock on a long-range bombing raid over Suvla Bay and pierced the plane with machine-gun fire, knocked off his port propeller. He and his two crewmen ditched at sea, swam to shore. They were marched naked to where the Turks had set up rows of little wooden cages for prisoners of war. Open to the weather. There was a Welshman beside him who had a map of the constellations, so Alcock practiced his navigation skills, stuck out under the nailheaded Turkish night: just one glance at the sky and he could tell exactly what time it was. Yet what Alcock wanted more than anything was to tinker with an engine. When he was moved to a detention camp in Kedos, he swapped his Red Cross chocolate for a dynamo, traded his shampoo for tractor parts, built a row of makeshift fans out of scrap wire, bamboo, bolts, batteries.
Teddy Brown, too, had become a prisoner of war, forced to land in France while out on photographic reconnaissance. A bullet shattered his leg. Another ruptured the fuel tank. On the way down he threw out his camera, tore up his charts, scattered the pieces. He and his pilot slid their B.E.2c into a muddy wheatfield, cut the engine, held their hands up. The enemy came running out of the forest to drag them from the wreck. Brown could smell petrol leaking from the tanks. One of the Krauts had a lit cigarette in his lips. Brown was known for his reserve. Excuse me, he called out, but the German kept coming forward, the cigarette flaring. Nein, nein. A little cloud of smoke came from the German’s mouth. Brown’s pilot finally lifted his arms and roared: For fucksake, stop!
The German paused in midstride, tilted his head back, paused, swallowed the burning cigarette, ran toward the airmen again.
It was something that made Brown’s son, Buster, laugh when he heard the story just before he, too, went to war, twenty years later. Excuse me. Nein, nein. As if the German had only the flap-end of his shirt sticking out, or had somehow neglected to tie his shoelace properly.
Brown was shipped home before the armistice, then lost his hat high in the air over Piccadilly Circus. The girls wore red lipstick. The hems of their dresses rose almost to their knees. He wandered along the Thames, followed the river until it crawled upwards to the sky.
Alcock didn’t make it back to London until December. He watched men in black suits and bowler hats pick their way amid the rubble. He joined in a game of football in an alley off the Pimlico Road, knocking a round pigskin back and forth. But he could already sense himself aloft again. He lit a cigarette, watched the smoke curl high and away.
When they met for the first time in the Vickers factory in Brook-lands, in early 1919, Alcock and Brown took one look at each other and it was immediately understood that they both needed a clean slate. The obliteration of memory. The creation of a new moment, raw, dynamic, warless. It was as if they wanted to take their older bodies and put their younger hearts inside. They didn’t want to remember the bombs that had dudded out, or the crash or burn, or the cellblocks they had been locked into, or what species of abyss they had seen in the dark.
Instead they talked about the Vickers Vimy. A nippy little thing.
The prevailing winds blew east from Newfoundland, pushing hard and fast across the Atlantic. Eighteen hundred miles of ocean.
The men came by ship from England, rented rooms in the Cochrane Hotel, waited for the Vimy to arrive at the docks. It came boxed in forty-seven large wooden crates. Late spring. A whip of frost still in the air. Alcock and Brown hired a crew to drag the crates up from the harbor. They strapped the boxes to horses and carts, assembled the plane in the field.
The meadow sat on the outskirts of St. John’s, on a half-hill, with a level surface of three hundred yards, a swamp at one end, and a pine forest at the other. Days of welding, soldering, sanding, stitching. The bomb bays were replaced by extra petrol tanks. That’s what pleased Brown the most. They were using the bomber in a brand-new way: taking the war out of the plane, stripping the whole thing of its penchant for carnage.
To level out the meadow, they crimped blasting caps to fuses, shattered boulders with dynamite, leveled walls and fences, removed hillocks. It was summertime but still there was a chill in the air. Flocks of birds moved fluidly across the sky.
After fourteen days the field was ready. To most people it was simply another patch of land, but to the two pilots it was a fabulous aerodrome. They paced the grass runway, watched the breeze in the trees, looked for clues in the weather.
Crowds of rubberneckers flocked to see the Vimy. Some had never ridden in a motorcar, let alone seen a plane before. From a distance it looked as if it had borrowed its design from a form of dragonfly. It was 42.7 feet long, 15.25 feet high, with a wingspan of 68 feet. It weighed 13,000 pounds when the 870 gallons of petrol and the 40 gallons of oil were loaded. Eleven pounds per square foot. The cloth framework had thousands of individual stitches. The bomb spaces were replaced by enough fuel for 30 hours of flying. It had a maximum speed of 103 miles per hour, not counting the wind, a cruising speed of 90 mph and a landing speed of 45 mph. There were two water-cooled Rolls-Royce Eagle VIII engines of 360 horsepower and a turnover rate of 1,080 revs per minute, with twelve cylinders in two banks of six, each engine driving a four-bladed wooden propeller.
The onlookers ran their hands along the struts, tapped the steel, pinged the taut linen of the wings with their umbrellas. Kids crayoned their names on the underside of the fuselage.
Photographers pulled black hoods over their lenses. Alcock mugged for the camera, shaded his hand to his eyes like an ancient explorer. Tally-ho! he shouted, before jumping the nine feet to the wet grass below.
The newspapers said anything was possible now. The world was made tiny. The League of Nations was being formed in Paris. W. E. B. Du Bois convened the Pan-African Congress with delegates from fifteen countries. Jazz records could be heard in Rome. Radio enthusiasts used vacuum tubes to transmit signals hundreds of miles. Some day soon it might be possible to read the daily edition of the San Francisco Examiner in Edinburgh or Salzburg or Sydney or Stockholm.
In London, Lord Northcliffe of the Daily Mail had offered £10,000 to the first men to land on one side of the Atlantic or the other. At least four other teams wanted to try. Hawker and Grieve had already crashed into the water. Others, like Brackley and Kerr, were positioned in airfields along the coast, waiting for the weather to turn. The flight had to be done in seventy-two hours. Nonstop.
There were rumors of a rich Texan who wanted to try, and a Hungarian prince and, worst of all, a German from the Luftstreitkräfte who had specialized in long-range bombing during the war.
The features editor of the Daily Mail, a junior of Lord Northcliffe’s, was said to have developed an ulcer thinking about a possible German victory.
—A Kraut! A bloody Kraut! God save us!
He dispatched reporters to find out if it was possible that the enemy, even after defeat, could possibly be ahead in the race.
On Fleet Street, down at the stone, where the hot type was laid, he paced back and forth, working the prospective headlines over and over. On the inside of his jacket his wife had stitched a Union Jack, which he rubbed like a prayer cloth.
—Come on boys, he muttered to himself. Hup two. On home now, back to Blighty.
Every morning the two airmen woke in the Cochrane Hotel, had their breakfast of porridge, eggs, bacon, toast. Then they drove through the steep streets, out the Forest Road, towards a field of grass sleeved with ice. The wind blew bitter blasts off the sea. They rigged wires into their flight suits so they could run warmth from a battery, and they stitched extra fur on the inside flaps of their helmets, their gloves, their boots.
From the Hardcover edition.
"McCann's novel centers around three historical crossings from America to Ireland. Between 1845 and 1846, Frederick Douglass tours Ireland and England to promote the abolitionist movement, his autobiography, and to negotiate his freedom so he can safely return to America. In 1919, aviators Jack Alcock and Arthur Brown attempt the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic. And in 1998, Senator George Mitchell leaves for Belfast to negotiate a peace agreement. These three journeys are anchored by four generations of fictional women from the Irish housemaid interacting with Douglass to Hannah Carson, whose doomed son grows up amid the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Narrator Geraldine Hughes delivers a masterful performance in which she subtly but effectively differentiates character voices. Hughes's narration is most riveting and authentic in the book's final section, about a woman who has lost her son to violence. A Random House hardcover. (June)" Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
In the National Book Award–winning Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann thrilled readers with a marvelous high-wire act of fiction that The New York Times Book Review called “an emotional tour de force.” Now McCann demonstrates once again why he is one of the most acclaimed and essential authors of his generation with a soaring novel that spans continents, leaps centuries, and unites a cast of deftly rendered characters, both real and imagined.
Newfoundland, 1919. Two aviators—Jack Alcock and Arthur Brown—set course for Ireland as they attempt the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean, placing their trust in a modified bomber to heal the wounds of the Great War.
Dublin, 1845 and ’46. On an international lecture tour in support of his subversive autobiography, Frederick Douglass finds the Irish people sympathetic to the abolitionist cause—despite the fact that, as famine ravages the countryside, the poor suffer from hardships that are astonishing even to an American slave.
New York, 1998. Leaving behind a young wife and newborn child, Senator George Mitchell departs for Belfast, where it has fallen to him, the son of an Irish-American father and a Lebanese mother, to shepherd Northern Ireland’s notoriously bitter and volatile peace talks to an uncertain conclusion.
These three iconic crossings are connected by a series of remarkable women whose personal stories are caught up in the swells of history. Beginning with Irish housemaid Lily Duggan, who crosses paths with Frederick Douglass, the novel follows her daughter and granddaughter, Emily and Lottie, and culminates in the present-day story of Hannah Carson, in whom all the hopes and failures of previous generations live on. From the loughs of Ireland to the flatlands of Missouri and the windswept coast of Newfoundland, their journeys mirror the progress and shape of history. They each learn that even the most unassuming moments of grace have a way of rippling through time, space, and memory.
The most mature work yet from an incomparable storyteller, TransAtlantic is a profound meditation on identity and history in a wide world that grows somehow smaller and more wondrous with each passing year.
Praise for TransAtlantic
“This novel is beautifully hypnotic in its movements, from the grand (between two continents, across three centuries) to the most subtle. Silkily threading together public events and private feelings, TransAtlantic says no to death with every line. Those who can’t see the point of historical novels will find their answer here: in all intelligent fiction, the past has not passed.”—Emma Donoghue, author of Room
“A dazzlingly talented author’s latest high-wire act . . . National Book Award winner Colum McCann weaves an intricate tapestry that illuminates the anguish of Irish history and the deeper agonies of war. TransAtlantic reads as a series of interconnected novellas, shifting between decades, among an unlikely cast of richly drawn characters. . . . Reminiscent of the finest work of Michael Ondaatje and Michael Cunningham, TransAtlantic is Colum McCann’s most penetrating novel yet.”—O: The Oprah Magazine
“Ingenious . . . The intricate connections he has crafted between the stories of his women and our men will, by the end, have you trying to figure out, in pencil, what he seems to have written in air, in water, and—given that his subject is the confluence of Irish and American history—in blood.”—Tom Junod, Esquire
From the Hardcover edition.