Michael Thomas’ Big Book

Last week Michael Thomas won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for his 2007 novel, Man Gone Down, the story of a black man’s desperate struggle over the course of a few days to keep his family afloat. The award is largely notable for its hefty payout—something on the order of $140,000—and the novel itself is largely notable for, if nothing else, proving that the New York Times Book Review still has some pull when it comes to anointing authors. Man Gone Down made the NYTBR’s list of ten best books of the year, and has sold 50,000 copies—very impressive for a debut literary novel. With the award, Grove/Atlantic plans to print 10,000 more.

But the novel itself is problematic, in part because it only clumsily fulfills the ambitions that the Times and the IMPAC award ratified. It is a Big Book by design—a statement, like Invisible Man about what it means to be a black man in America—and Thomas is clearly a writer with high literary ambitions. In an interview with the Irish Times shortly after winning the award, he enthused about reading Thomas Mann at 15 and routinely mentions T.S. Eliot. What’s disappointing about the novel is that Thomas occasionally shoves in Big Book longueurs designed to broadcast its bigness, already clotted with a lot of detailed plot points about the unnamed hero’s past shortcomings and present-day frustrations. A typical moment where the rhetorical symphony breaks out:

I was supposed to have been somebody. I was full of promise. “What happens to a dream deferred?” “How can you mend a broken heart?” What if you don’t keep your promise? But who made it for you? If not you, then why is it yours to keep? I was supposed to have been somebody—not anybody—somebody who mattered and to whom things mattered. I was born a poor black boy of above-average intelligence and without physical deformity. I was born a poor Indian boy of above-average intelligence and without physical deformity. I was born a poor Irish boy of above-average intelligence and without physical deformity. I was born a poor black boy of above-average intelligence and without physical deformity, and therefore I should lead my people. It didn’t work out that way. Even my father felt he could shake his head at me. “When you were a little boy you were so full of light…”

And so on. It’s a novel I very much wanted to like—it keeps coming close to feeling like a coherent statement about indebtedness and race and class. But ultimately it feels like a novel about a guy who needs to pay some creditors.

2 thoughts on “Michael Thomas’ Big Book

  1. I guess I have a bug v. feature disagreement with you relative to Thomas’s ambition in writing Man Gone Down. To me, that quality is precisely what sets it apart from the bulk of other American novels published each year. It’s certainly not a perfect book, but in it Thomas accomplishes much more than he could have in a more contained, more moderate sort of effort. I thought it was the best new novel I read in 2007.

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