All Hat and History – Book Review

Book Reveiw by Frank O’Shea

Colum McCann: Thirteen Ways Of LookingMcCann. Bloomsbury. 242 pp. 

ISBN: 978-1-4088-6984-0. RRP: $29.99

In June 2014, Colum McCann was hospitalised after coming to the aid of a woman being attacked on a Connecticut street. That event has echoes in this book which consists of a 143-page novella and three short stories. If there is a central focus, it is the attempt through fiction to try to understand the motivation for random acts of evil.

The main story concerns the New York murder of an old man named Mendelssohn, a former judge, as he leaves a restaurant. A kitchen hand is charged with the crime, but as the story finishes, the reader is not told whether he is found guilty. This is because the story is not so much about guilt and innocence as about the background series of seemingly unconnected events that led, almost logically, to the killing.

Mendelssohn is like a character from an old epic, ‘all hat and history.’ A refugee from Lithuania, he spent his childhood in Dublin, where ‘for some reason he could never work out, he was called Quinn. Then Quinner … or perhaps there was a Dublin slang in it he could never recognise.’ He fell in love with Eileen Daly; they would meet many years later and marry; she has recently died and is now constantly in his thoughts. His son Elliot is in the shady hedge fund world of Wall Street; his problems are mainly hinted at, though he seems to be a thoroughly unpleasant character.

The other thread of the story concerns the efforts of detectives to work out a reason for the murder, their only help coming from footage taken from cameras in Mendelssohn’s building, in the street outside and in the restaurant where he is killed. ‘The evidence could be there in the oddest of moments, the briefest of glances, the slightest of shoulder rubs.’

If this review appears to quote more than usual from the book, it is because this is writing of the very highest quality, a kind of poetical prose, livened by improbable puns and phrases that pull the reader up with their daring. Here is Mendelssohn talking about the housekeepers who work in mid-Manhattan penthouses.

The Help, some people say. What a terrible thing to call them, but what other word is there. Not servants. Not domestics. Not aides, God forbid, they’re no disease.’

Then as he leaves the building it is to a snowstorm and ‘the applause of windshield wipers’.

If the word masterpiece can be attributed to a work of prose, this novella must surely qualify. But it can also be applied to the final story in the book, an examination of guilt and forgiveness and the capacity or otherwise of people to change. The book is worth whatever number of dollars and ninety-nine cents you pay for that final story. To fully appreciate it, you would need to know that the word ‘puta’ in the languages of central and South America means ‘whore’ or ‘slut’, because the meaning is not obvious from the context.

The expression ‘award-winning’ is used freely by publishers, but is one which applies in spades to Dubliner Colum McCann as any internet search will confirm. He and Peter Carey lecture in creative writing at Hunter College in New York. I have enthused about his earlier books like Let the Great World Spin, Transatlantic and This Side of Brightness, and am happy to say that this is equally brilliant: a writer at his best, surfing a wave of words and ideas while the rest of us paddle in the sandy shallows.

Frank O’ Shea is a regular contributor to Tinteán.