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Michael Thomas: Man Gone Down

Against all the odds, this long, rambling, semi-autobiographical novel by a previously unpublished African-American author won the IMPAC award. It tells the story of four days in the life of an unnamed man (who may or may not be called Teddy Ballingham), who seems to be very much like his creator. He is currently staying in the house of a friend – Marco, an Italian who has come over to the United States and been very successful – sleeping in the bed of Marco’s six-year old son. He is trying to write a novel (or maybe two novels) while trying to get his life together. He is married to Claire, a white woman, and they have three children – a son called Cecil who wants to be known as C, his brother, Michael, who wants to be known as X and an unnamed daughter. Claire and the children have gone to stay with her mother in Massachusetts while the narrator tries to get a job teaching (he hasn’t really looked), find an apartment for them (he hasn’t really looked) and earn some money to pay off debts, including his children’s school fees. He earns a bit of money doing carpentry on a building site but he does not earn much. Marco, living on his own, has an empty fridge so he has to survive helping himself to the money in Marco’s change bowl and the few dollars he earns in construction.

The narrator is disorganised, often unable to take the action he needs to take to get on with his life. However, we learn from his long ramblings of his early life and how that might have made him what he is today. His parents were both alcoholics and his father was abusive. After his father left, his mother got worse and ended up hanging herself. He had always been her bright boy and all her expectations were placed on him but he somehow never achieved what she expected of him. Much of his life was, of course, conditioned by racism, both the direct kind (he was chased by whites who objected that he was bussed to a local school and was beaten up by the police as a teenager) and the indirect kind (i.e. people looking at him and treating him differently). Indeed, he continues to have racist problems – he is called nigger by someone he works with (it ends up in a fight), continues to be harassed by the police and feels uncomfortable in certain social situations. We meet his three teenage friends. His best friend is Gavin, a white boy of Irish origin. Gavin will end up a drunk, going on long benders when things go wrong (often with women) and spend a lot of time in rehab. Brian, after school, became a Buddhist and went off to the Far East for a while, before returning to a conventional life, till he was killed in the 9/11 attacks. Shake is the difficult, violent one, who ends up in an institution.

But the story is about how he cannot seem to get his act together and sort things out. Thomas gives us long set pieces (presumably partially autobiographical), such as the evening where he plays guitar and sings at a club amateur night. We see his preparations and get the full details of the other performers and the compere but it is not boring, as Thomas tells it so well. Another example is the golf game, where the narrator is invited by Marco and two white friends to play at a posh country club. He feels uncomfortable and out of place until he meets the caddies – one white and one, called Houston, black. He and Houston get on very well. As he urges himself, we keep urging him to get on with his life, make the arrangements he needs to make but he always seem to hesitate or have a reason for not doing what he should do. But the depth of the portrayal and the supporting cast make this a fascinating novel. I am not sure that I would compare it with the The Invisible Man, as some have done, but it is still a fine novel.

Publishing history

First published 2007 by Grove Press