This Side of Brightness
is a 1998 novel by New York-based Irish novelist Colum McCann. Its two parallel narratives follow Nathan Walker, an African-American man who comes to New York in 1915 to join the crews building subway tunnels under the city, and Treefrog, a homeless man who in the 1980s makes his home in the rafters of one of those tunnels. Hailed as a “haunting novel, by a writer emerging as a major talent” (Kirkus Reviews
), This Side of Brightness
marked a breakthrough for McCann, now regarded as one of Ireland’s most important living writers. He is best known for Let the Great World Spin
, which won the National Book Award in 2009.
The novel opens in 1915, among a crew of four “sandhogs,” laborers working to build a subway tunnel deep under the East River in New York City. As they dig, a pinhole opens in the muck above the sandhogs’ heads. The compressed air holding the tunnel open rapidly widens and deepens the hole; before they can react, the “hogs” are blasted up through the riverbed, through the ice-cold water, and 25 feet into the air. Three of the hogs survive, but Irishman Con O’Leary’s body is never found.
Meanwhile, in 1991, a half-crazed homeless man named Treefrog makes his home in an abandoned subway tunnel. He calls his home a “nest,” high up in the metal girders under the tunnel’s roof. It can only be accessed by climbing narrow I-beams, so it affords Treefrog some protection from the hundreds of other derelicts and drug addicts who haunt the tunnels. One of these homeless people has pirated electricity from the grid and brought it to the tunnel-dwellers, but that is their only comfort. Treefrog’s nest lies under a grate, through which snow falls. He survives by scavenging cans and bottles for the “redemption money,” but his daily preoccupations are the memory of his beloved daughter and unspoken guilt.
These two stories alternate: the story of the sandhogs moving forward, as Treefrog’s memories take him back in time.
After O’Leary’s death, one of the surviving hogs, Nathan Walker, decides to take care of O’Leary’s grieving widow and newborn daughter. Walker is a black man from Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia, but in the relative equality among sandhogs, he earns the respect of his peers, rising to the dangerous position of “front hog.” Meanwhile, as he helps to support O’Leary’s daughter, Eleanor, a complicated love affair arises between them. Despite the significant risk of embarking on an inter-racial relationship, the couple decides to marry.
They encounter obstacles everywhere. They can’t even go shopping together: Eleanor is prevented from trying on a hat because she has a black husband. Her Irish Catholic parish church closes its doors to her, so she has herself baptized as a Baptist in Harlem.
The couple has three children. Whenever he can, Nathan sits with his son, Clarence, in the front car of the subway, to show the boy where he once worked, and what he and his fellow sandhogs achieved.
The Walkers’ working-class neighborhood deteriorates, and one day in 1955, Eleanor is run over by a local drug dealer, showing off his new car. Clarence, whose promising academic career was cut off by the Korean War, kills the dealer and then the policeman who tries to arrest him for murder. He flees south, where he is shot dead by a Georgia policeman.
A grieving Nathan travels to his home state to collect his son’s body. When he arrives at the police station in Atlanta an officer greets him: “I got myself one of your kind in my family tree. Just a-swinging away from the highest branch.”
Back home, “he sleeps in Clarence’s bed. Then he moves across and arranges the pillows beside the ghost of his wife. All three of them lie down together. The pulse of Louis Armstrong sounds out from the record player, the notes moving tenderly through his torment.”
Nathan has some consolation in Clarence’s son, Clarence Jr., a daredevil boy who likes to balance on the roofs of neighborhood buildings. Inspired by his grandfather’s construction stories, young Clarence grows up to work in high-rise construction, balancing hundreds of feet above the street to bolt girders into place. Like his grandfather before him, Clarence thrives. He marries and has a daughter.
One day, Nathan, now prematurely decrepit with arthritis, takes his grandson to see one of the subway tunnels he built. Their visit is mistimed, and Nathan is killed by a train. Blaming himself and grief-stricken, Clarence Jr. begins drinking.
This narrative has been interspersed throughout with snapshots of Treefrog’s life. We learn that he spies on Angela, a homeless woman and a victim of domestic abuse whom Treefrog wants to love, or perhaps just protect. As he reconstructs his past and the dark secret that haunts him, we realize that Treefrog is none other than Nathan’s grandson, Clarence. In the novel’s final moments, we learn that Treefrog, in his alcohol-fuelled self-hatred, began molesting his daughter. His wife threw him out, and ever since he has haunted the subway tunnels. The final note of the novel is narrowly optimistic, suggesting that Treefrog might be coming to terms with his guilt and shame.