Crisscrossing the Pond in Colum McCann’s ‘TransAtlantic’

Lee Polevoi


Colum McCann

Random House

304 pages


A novelist who uses well-known historical figures in his work risks having readers judge the quality of his characterization by what they know (or think they know) about these real-life individuals. In TransAtlantic, the new novel by Colum McCann, winner of the National Book Award for Let the Great World Spin, the author takes this approach a step further by introducing Senator George Mitchell of Maine, a “character” drawn from real life. McCann largely succeeds in pulling it off, while simultaneously displaying the drawbacks inherent in this narrative strategy.


The stories in TransAtlantic span more than a century in time and a great ocean in space. In addition to Mitchell, other “real” characters include John Alcock and Arthur Brown, the first men to fly nonstop across the Atlantic, and Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist author who spent two years on a lecture tour in Ireland.


Alcock and Brown take off from Newfoundland 1919 in a refurbished Vickers Vimy bomber, bound for the Irish coast. Their flight is thrillingly depicted, and the most accomplished section of the novel:


“Brown adjusts his gloves, pulls his earflaps tight, hikes his scarf high around his mouth. He swivels in his seat. A throb in his bad leg when he moves. Right knee against the edge of the fuselage. Then the left knee, the bad one. He grabs hold of the wooden strut and pulls himself up into the blast of air. The chloroform of cold. The air pushing him back. The sting of snow on his cheeks. His soaking clothes stuck to his neck, his back, his shoulders. A chandelier of snot from his nose. The blood backing off his body, his fingers, his brain … He extends himself into the thrashing wind, but can’t quite reach. His flight jacket is too bulky. He loosens the zip, feels the whoosh of wind at his chest, stretches backwards, knocks the snow off the glass gauge with the tip of his knife. Good God. This cold. Almost stops the heart.”


McCann is fond of sentence fragments (“The air pushing him back. The sting of snow on his cheeks”), which are sometimes frustrating to follow in their staccato, screenplay-like rhythms. The technique is more successful here than in Let the Great World Spin, because he keeps this authorial tic mostly in check.


Frederick Douglass comes to Ireland in 1845, a world-famous author of slave origins determined to bring awareness of the anti-slavery cause to rich benefactors in Europe. He encounters an alien environment where the ravages of the great potato famine go on beyond the walls of the mansion belonging to his wealthy Quaker host.


Another jump in time to New York City, 1998. Retired U.S. Senator George Mitchell is five years into a thankless diplomatic effort to bring peace to Northern Ireland. As he awaits take-off at JFK airport to cross the Atlantic (under far different conditions than Alcock and Brown), Mitchell reflects on the motives behind his quest:



“It’s the tenacity of the fanatic that he wants to pitch himself against. There is, he knows, something akin to his own form of violence in the way he wants to hang on and fight. The way the terrorist might hide himself in a wet ditch all night. Cold and the damp seeping down into the gunman’s boots, right up into the small of his back, along his spine, through his cranium, out his pores, so cold, so very cold, watching, waiting, until the stars are gone, and the morning chatters with a bit of light. He would like to outlast that man in the ditch, outwait the cold and the rain and the filth, and the opportunity for a bullet, remain down in the reeds, underwater, in the dark, breathing through a hollow piece of grass.”


The prose throughout this section is vivid and compelling, but the portrayal of Mitchell bumps up against what seems like unblemished admiration for the man himself. Mitchell comes across as saintly rather than multidimensional, and his journey towards a successful negotiation of the Good Friday peace agreement feels oddly static. Is it because we know the outcome of the story before we read it? Or was the author unable to achieve the critical distance needed to round out his account of a man who’s still very much among the living?


Fictional characters that appear fleetingly in these early sections rise to prominence later in TransAtlantic. From the 19th century to nearly the present day, McCann brilliantly draws us into the lives of several generations of women: Lily Duggan, a penniless maid in Webb’s Dublin household who immigrates to America; her daughter Emily, a journalist, who reports on Brown and Alcock’s historic flight; Emily’s daughter, Lottie, who suffers a mother’s loss during the Troubles and later exhorts Sen. Mitchell to end the violence. These characters’ lives are deftly intertwined, adding considerable texture to a story that otherwise threatens to be sprawling and diffuse.


Finally, the writing itself keeps the reader glued to the pages. Arresting phrases and images appear on every page (“Emily had the texture of old weather”), with only occasional missteps (“as if she might suddenly take flight, a parachute of intrigue”).  The book’s poetic language, combined with its elegant structure, make TransAtlantic likely to be one of the best novels published this year.  


Author Bio:

 Lee Polevoi, Highbrow Magazine’s chief book critic and author of The Moon in Deep Winter, is currently completing a new novel.


Photo: US Navy Imagery (Flickr).

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