Man Gone Down
A Novelby Michael Thomas
“Ambitious…The book is filled with some virtuoso passages that expose the subtle degrees of racism in the narrator’s world.” –Kirkus Reviews
A 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 present 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.
“Battered by bitter memories, and paralyzed by the poison of prejudice, which is tainting his relationships with his loving wife and sons, he works carpentry jobs, goes for long late-night runs, and seeks to exorcise his demons. By evoking the tension, longing, and beauty of the great and grinding city, summoning the mysterious power of the sea, and drawing on Melville and Ellison, 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.” –Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred review)
“Thomas’s knack for bonding the reader with a number of New York characters is admirable, and the narrator’s thoughts about his marriage, work and racial tension are as graceful as they are blunt. . . . Thomas’s subtle prose casts a new light on urban life in Brooklyn–even if you already live there.” –Cherie Dennis, Time Out New York
“Powerful and moving . . . An impressive success . . . Thomas seems to have fully embraced the “write what you know” ethos. And what he knows is how the odds are stacked in America. He knows the unlikelihood of successful black fatherhood. He knows that things are set up to keep the Other poor and the poor in their place. More than anything else, he knows how little but also–fortunately–how much it can take to bring a man down.” –Kaiama L. Glover, The New York Times Book Review
“[A] jazzy, sinewy debut… Thomas’s urgent, quicksilver prose makes even the darkest moments of this novel shine.”–Cathleen Medwich, O, the Oprah Magazine
“Like the characters of Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry, whom [Thomas] references throughout the novel with recognizable phrases, themes and quotes, [the] unnamed narrator is a black man concerned with identity in a decidedly white America. . . . 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. . . . Thomas, a fine writer, can produce beautiful prose. . . . 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. . . . 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.” –Tina McElroy Ansa, Washington Post
“The narrator’s hard-bitten realism and Thomas’s blues-dirge-y storytelling instincts keep the narrative thrumming. Even at its darkest, the novel’s brooding doesn’t detract from its intellectual value and emotional core: a jazzy, complicated literary work.” –Jonathan Durbin, People
“What a novel, and what a writer. Michael Thomas is brilliant, and Man Gone Down is riveting. Every page vibrates with love and anger and hope.” –Elizabeth Gaffney, author of Metropolis
“A real uncertainty haunts Man Gone Down and its landscapes, sticking to their edges. It captures human flux.” –Tess Taylor, San Francisco Chronicle
“Michael Thomas’s Man Gone Down moves along nicely. His unnamed narrator is broke, estranged from his wife and children and temporarily living in a friend’s child’s room, while desperately trying to figure out his life. This debut has racism at its core, but there’s much more to it than that.” –Martin Zimmerman, San Diego Union Tribune
“In the great, dark churn of race and wealth, of poverty and prejudices, of judgments and forgivenesses that is the city, the hero of Man Gone Down charts a four-day, Homeric trek through what makes America and New York a social and racial nightmare as well as a dream that incredibly can still come true. In this fast-paced, idea-rich novel, Michael Thomas grabs you by the mental collar with the rare voice that is simultaneously classic and modern, with a style that compels the reader to cheer this unwavering husband and father onward, Ishmael-like, into the light, into the open waters of the next day. It would be a mistake to live in a city anywhere in America and not wade into Thomas’ rich and rewarding depths.” –Robert Sullivan, author of Rats and Cross Country: 15 Years and 90, 000 Miles on the Road . . .
“Ambitious . . . The book is filled with some virtuoso passages that expose the subtle degrees of racism in the narrator’s world.” –Kirkus Reviews
“A big, brave, heart-wrenching first novel, Michael Thomas tackles head-on the subjects of race, work and family. A tremendous debut.” –Alice Greenway, author of White Ghost Girls
“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, Author of The Full Matilda
“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, author of Third Girl from the Left
“The narrator of this remarkable novel can name each star in the constellation of circumstances that describe the shape of his life as if observing them from a great distance, yet with a surprisingly intimate and passionate accuracy. Its unique achievement, that is, its particular beauty, is in how it engages us, right from the start, with the unannounced arrival of revelations, with humor, and with the growing realization that the life he speaks of has much in common with our own.” –Chuck Wachtel, author of The Gates
Winner of the International Dublin/IMPAC Literary Award
New York Times Top Ten Best Books of 2007
New York Times Notable Books of 2007
San Francisco Chronicle Notable Book of 2007
Spring/Summer 2008 Book Sense Best Reading Group title
I know I’m not doing well. I have an emotional relationship with a fish–Thomas Strawberry. My oldest son, C, named him, and that name was given weight because a six-year-old voiced it as though he’d had an epiphany: “He looks like a strawberry.” The three adults in the room had nodded in agreement.
“I only gave you one,” his godfather, Jack, the marine biologist, told him. “If you have more than one, they kill each other.” Jack laughed. He doesn’t have kids. He doesn’t know that one’s not supposed to speak of death in front of them and cackle. One speaks of death in hushed, sober tones–the way one speaks of alcoholism, race, or secret bubble gum a younger sibling can’t have. Jack figured it out on some level from the way both C and X looked at him blankly and then stared into the small aquarium, perhaps envisioning a battle royal between a bowlful of savage little fish, or the empty space left behind. We left the boys in their bedroom and took the baby with us.
“They don’t live very long,” he whispered to us. “About six weeks.” That was C’s birthday in February. It’s August, and he’s not dead.
He’s with me on the desk, next to my stack of books and legal pads. I left my laptop at my mother-in-law’s for C to use. She’d raised an eyebrow as I started to the door. Allegedly, my magnum opus was on that hard drive–the book that would launch my career and provide me with the financial independence she desired. “I write better if the first draft is longhand.” She hadn’t believed me. It had been a Christmas gift from Claire. I remember opening it and being genuinely surprised. All three children had stopped to see what was in the box.
‘merry Christmas, honey,” she’d cooed in my ear. She then took me by the chin and gently turned my face to meet hers. “This is your year.” She kissed me–too long–and the children, in unison, looked away. The computer was sleek and gray and brimming with the potential to organize my thoughts, my work, my time. It would help extract that last portion of whatever it was that I was working on and buff it with the requisite polish to make it salable. “This is our year.” Her eyes looked glazed, as though she had been intoxicated by the machine’s power, the early hour, and the spirit of the season. It had been bought, I was sure, with her mother’s money. And I knew Edith had never believed me to have any literary talent, but she’d wanted to make her daughter feel supported and loved–although she probably had expected it to end like this. C had seemed happy when I left, though, sitting on the floor with his legs stretched under the coffee table, the glow from the screen washing out his copper skin.
“By-ye.” He’d made it two syllables. He hadn’t looked up.
Marco walks up the stairs and stops outside his kid’s study, where I’m working. He knocks on the door. I don’t know whether to be thankful or annoyed, but the door’s open and it’s his house. I try to be as friendly as I can.
“Yo! What’s up?” He walks in. I turn halfway and throw him a wave. He comes to the desk and looks down at the stack of legal pads.
“Damn, you’re cranking it out, man.”
“I’m writing for my life.” He laughs. I don’t. I wonder if he notices.
“Is it a novel?”
I can’t explain to him that three pads are one novel and seven are another, but what I’m working on is a short story. I can’t tell him that each hour I have what I believe to be an epiphany, and I must begin again–thinking about my life.
“Want to eat something?”
“No thanks, man, I have to finish this part.”
I turn around on the stool. I’m being rude. He’s moved back to the doorway, leaning. His tie’s loose. He holds his leather bag in one hand and a fresh beer in the other. He’s dark haired, olive skinned, and long nosed. He’s five-ten and in weekend racquetball shape. He stands there, framed by a clear, solid maple jamb. Next to him is more mill-work–a solid maple bookcase, wonderfully spare, with books and photos and his son’s trophies. There’s a picture of his boy with C. They were on the same peewee soccer team. They’re grinning, holding trophies in front of what I believe to be my leg. Marco clinks his wedding band on the bottle. I stare at him. I’ve forgotten what we were talking about. I hope he’ll pick me up.
“Want me to bring you something back?”
“No, man. Thanks, I’m good.”
I’m broke, but I can’t tell him this because while his family’s away on Long Island for the summer, I’m sleeping in his kid’s bed and he earns daily what I, at my best, earn in a month, because he has a beautiful home, because in spite of all this, I like him. I believe he’s a decent man.
“All right, man.” He goes to take a sip, then stops. He’s probably learned of my drinking problem through the neighborhood gossip channels, but he’s never confirmed any of it with me.
“Call me on the cell if you change your mind.”
He leaves. In the margins, I tally our monthly costs. “We need to make $140,000 a year,” Claire told me last week. I compute that I’ll have to teach twenty-two freshman comp sections a semester as well as pick up full-time work as a carpenter. Thomas Strawberry swims across his bowl to face me.
“I fed you,” I say to him as though he’s my dog. He floats, puckering his fish lips. Thomas, at one time, had the whole family copying his pucker face, but the boys got tired of it. The little one, my girl, kept doing it–the fish, the only animal she’d recognize. “What does the cow say?” I’d ask. “What does the cat say?” She’d stare at me, blankly, giving me the deadeye that only children can give–a glimpse of her indecipherable consciousness. “What does the fish say?” She’d pucker, the same way as when I’d ask her for a kiss–the fish face and a forehead to the cheekbone.
I packed my wife and kids into my mother-in-law’s enormous Mercedes Benz at 7:45 p.m. on Friday, June 26. It was essential for both Claire and her mother to leave Brooklyn by eight with the kids fed and washed and ready for sleep for the three-and-a-half-hour drive to Massachusetts. Claire, I suppose, had learned the trick of planning long drives around sleeping schedules from her mother. Road trips required careful planning and the exact execution of those plans. I’d have to park in the bus stop on Atlantic Avenue in front of our building then run the bags, toys, books, and snacks down the stairs, trying to beat the thieves and meter maids. Then I’d signal for Claire to bring the kids down, and we’d strap them into their seats, equipping them with juice and crackers and their special toys. Then, in her mind, she’d make one last sweep of the house, while I’d calculate the cost of purchasing whatever toiletries I knew I’d left behind.
After the last bathroom check and the last seatbelt check, we’d be off. We’d sing. We’d tell stories. We’d play I Spy. Then one kid would drop off and we’d shush the other two until Jersey or Connecticut and continue to shush until the last one dropped. There’s something about children sleeping in cars, perhaps something felt by parents, and perhaps only by the parents of multiple children–their heads tilted, their mouths open, eyes closed. The stillness and the quiet that had vanished from your life returns, but you must be quiet–respect their stillness, their silence. You must also make the most of it. It’s when you speak about important things that you don’t want them to hear: money, time, death–we’d almost whisper. We’d honor their breath, their silence, knowing that their faces would be changed each time they awoke, one nap older, that less easily lulled to sleep. Before we had children, we joked, we played music loud, we talked about a future with children. “What do you think they’ll be like?” she’d ask. But I knew I could never voice the image in my head and make it real for her–our child; my broad head, her sharp nose, blond afro, and freckles–the cacophony phenotype alone caused. I would shake my head. She’d smile and whine, “What?” playfully, as though I was flirting with or teasing her, but in actuality, I was reeling from the picture of the imagined face, the noise inside her dichotomized mind, and the ache of his broken mongrel heart.
X was already beginning to fade when Edith turned on the engine. The sun was setting over the East River. The corrugated metal warehouses, the giant dinosaur-like cranes, and the silver chassis of the car were swept with a mix of rosy light and shadow. I used to drink on a hill in a park outside of Boston with my best friend, Gavin. He’d gotten too drunk at too many high school parties and he wasn’t welcome at them anymore, so we drank by ourselves outside. We’d say nothing and watch the sun set. And when the light was gone from the sky, one of us would try to articulate whatever was troubling us that day.
“Okay, honey.” Claire was buckling up. “We’re all in.” Edith tried to smile at me and mouthed, “Bye.” She took a hand off the wheel and gave a short wave. I closed C’s door and looked in at him to wave good-bye, but he was watching the dome light slowly fade from halogen white through orange to umber–soft and warm enough through its transitions to temporarily calm the brassiness of Edith’s hair. I saw him say, “Cool” as it dulled, suspended on the ceiling, emberlike. Perhaps it reminded him of a fire he’d once seen in its dying stages, or a sunset. I watched him until it went off, and there was more light outside the car than in and he was partially obscured by my reflection.
C said something to his grandmother and his window lowered. He unbuckled himself and got up on his knees. Edith put the car in gear.
“Sit down and buckle up, hon.” C didn’t acknowledge her and stuck his hand out the window.
“Say good-bye to your dad.”
There was something about daddy versus dad. Something that made it seem as though it was the last good-bye he’d say to me as a little boy. X’s eyes were closed. My girl yawned, shook her head, searched for and then found her bottle in her lap. C was still waving. Edith rolled up all the windows. Claire turned to tell him to sit, and they pulled away.
Thomas Strawberry’s bowl looks cloudy. There’s bright green algae growing on the sides, leftover food and what I imagine to be fish poop on the bottom–charcoal-green balls that list back and forth, betraying an underwater current. Cleaning his bowl is always difficult for me because the risk of killing him seems so high. I don’t know how much trauma a little fish can handle. So I hold off cleaning until his habitat resembles something like a bayou backwater–more suitable for a catfish than for Thomas. He has bright orange markings and elaborate fins. He looks flimsy–effete. I can’t imagine him fighting anything, especially one of his own.
I tap the glass and remember aquarium visits and classroom fish tanks. There was always a sign or a person in charge warning not to touch the glass. Thomas swims over to me, and while he examines my fingertip, I sneak the net in behind him. I scoop him out of the water. He wriggles and then goes limp. He does this every time, and every time I think I’ve killed him. I let him out into his temporary lodgings. He darts out of the net, back to life, and swims around the much smaller confines of the cereal bowl. I clean his bowl in the bathroom sink and refill it with the tepid water I believe he likes. I go back to the desk. He’s stopped circling. I slowly pour him back in. I wonder if his stillness in the net is because of shock or if he’s playing possum. The latter of the two ideas suggests the possibility of a fishy consciousness. Since school begins for the boys in two weeks and I haven’t found an apartment, a job, or paid tuition, I let it go.
I wonder if I’m too damaged. Baldwin somewhere once wrote about someone who had “a wound that he would never recover from,” but I don’t remember where. He also wrote about a missing member that was lost but still aching. Maybe something inside of me was no longer intact. Perhaps something had been cut off or broken down–collateral damage of the diaspora. Marco seems to be intact. Perhaps he was damaged, too. Perhaps whatever he’d had was completely lost, or never there. I wonder if I’m too damaged. Thomas Strawberry puckers at me. I tap the glass. He swims away.
I had a girlfriend in high school named Sally, and one day I told her everything. How at the age of six I’d been treed by an angry mob of adults who hadn’t liked the idea of Boston busing. They threw rocks up at me, yelling, “Nigger go home!” And how the policeman who rescued me called me ‘sammy.” How I’d been sodomized in the bathroom of the Brighton Boys Club when I was seven, and how later that year, my mother, divorced and broke, began telling me that she should’ve flushed me down the toilet when she’d had the chance. I told Sally that from the day we met, I’d been writing poems about it all, for her, which I then gave to her. She held the book of words like it was a cold brick, with a glassy film, not tears, forming in front of her eyes. I fear, perhaps, that I’m too damaged. In the margins of the yellow pad I write down titles for the story–unholy trinities: Drunk, Black, and Stupid. Black, Broke, and Stupid. Drunk, Black, and Blue. The last seems the best–the most melodic, the least concrete. Whether or not it was a mystery remained to be seen.
The phone rings. It’s Claire.
“Happy almost birthday.”
It’s been three weeks since I’ve seen my family. Three weeks of over-the-phone progress reports. We’ve used up all the platitudes we know. Neither of us can stand it.
“Are you coming?”
It’s a setup. She knows I can’t afford the fare.
‘do you have something lined up for tomorrow?”
“Yeah,” I answer. As of now it’s a lie, but it’s nine. I have till Labor Day to come up with several thousand dollars for a new apartment and long overdue bills, plus an extra fifty for the bus. It’s unlikely, but not unreasonable.
“Did you get the security check from Marta?” she asks, excited for a moment that someone owes us money.
“Fuck.” She breathes. Claire’s never been convincing when she curses. She sighs purposefully into the receiver. ‘do you have a plan?”
“I’ll make a plan.”
“Will you let me know?”
“I’ll let you know.”
“I dropped my mother at the airport this morning.”
“It’s her house. I like your mother.” It’s a lie, but I’ve never, in the twelve years we’ve been together, shown any evidence of my contempt.
“I think C wants a Ronaldo shirt.” She stops. “Not the club team. He wants a Brazil one.” Silence again. “Is that possible?”
“I’ll try.” More silence. “How’s your nose?”
“It’s fine.” She sighs. She waits. I can tell she’s crunching numbers in her head. She turns her voice up to sound excited. “We’d all love to see you,” then turns it back down–soft, caring, to pad the directive. “Make a plan.”