For the better part of two decades Colum McCann has studied Icarus’s fall in reverse. His novels are powered by moments of human heroism that lead not to demise, but moments of grace. Sandhogs blast through bedrock in “This Side of Brightness” to build the New York City tunnels. A ballet performer becomes a god in “Dancer.” In McCann’s National Book Award-winning “Let the Great World Spin,” Philippe Petit tightrope walks between the two World Trade Center towers. Meanwhile, far down below, a cast of characters hovers in similar moments of danger and grace.
If McCann were a showy writer, there would be a circus atmosphere to all these miraculous feats. He is not. With each book he reinvents, and hones his style. The sentences have become ever more chiseled and self-effacing. The right words, McCann proves, draw us inward, not to the page. Similarly, his fiction has become increasingly marinated in anguish and relief. As if its creator has emerged from his desk, each time, with a fresher understanding for how great works are often born from humbling loss.
Such is the case in McCann’s new novel, “TransAtlantic,” which orbits the stories of three expansions in human freedom with gravity-defying panache. In the 1840s, Frederick Douglass travels to Ireland to publish his classic autobiography and raise money for the anti-slavery cause. In another thread, Jack Alcock and Teddy Brown attempt the world’s first nonstop trans-Atlantic flight. Finally, in the 1990s, Senator George Mitchell grinds through a final week to reach the Good Friday Accords, which formed the basis for the conclusion of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
McCann threads a whole secondary cast of characters through this series of events. They are all, needless to say, Irish women: strong, capable women who are in many cases just as important to carrying history from one generation to the next. They are witnesses, inspiration, and keepers of the private stories. Alternating from one event to the next, in loosely chronological fashion, McCann creates history in stereoscopic dimension. Here are the men you know about, the book gently says, and here are the women you don’t.
One of the greatest pleasures of “TransAtlantic” is how provisional it makes history feel, how intimate, and intensely real. The opening sequence about Brown and Alcock features some death-defying writing about the sheer physical discomfort of flying an open-cockpit plane at 10,000 feet across the Northern Atlantic. McCann’s prose slows into sentence fragments, like language congealed into essential elements:
“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.”
McCann gives you the feeling as a reader that you do not just know these characters, you are them. Inhabiting their senses and terrors.
It is an uncanny feeling as the novel cycles into a bravura passage about Douglass’s trip to Ireland, and then London, to stump for anti-slavery.
Like the two aviators, Douglass is a man aloft. Buoyed up from past circumstance and held before the world as a hero. He has also performed a crucial kind of alchemy. Just as Alcock and Brown had refitted a plane made for war and turned it into an aircraft for peace, Douglass travels Ireland transforming the story of his bondage into one of hope. The pressure upon him is relentless, and McCann beautifully describes the rituals and self-effacements Douglass performed in order to remain grounded.
The weight of charisma is aptly portrayed here. A poor house maid named Lily falls under the spell of Douglass. In the first brave act of her life, she flees her home and walks 20 miles in the rain to find him in Cork at the next stop on his speaking junket. The boldness of her action embarrasses him and humiliates her, but it becomes the door through which she walks into a new life. She leaves Ireland and lands in St. Louis where her life takes a whole new swerve. A child is born of a loveless encounter. He dies in war. She is married to an ice farmer.
Action and release, grace and grind; there is a pulse to “TranAtlantic’’ that approximates the texture of time. Its swells and troughs. Times of peace. Trauma. McCann has always been curious about why a life matters. Here he approaches the arc of our days with a mystic sense of awe and curiosity.
“Transatlantic” should not be a suspenseful book, as the history it draws from is known. And yet it is. The section that follows Mitchell from his apartment in New York City up to the morning the Good Friday agreement is signed unfolds in a nervy present-tenseness. As in “Dancer,” McCann moves quickly and slowly at once. One paragraph on Mitchell captures the entire sweep of his childhood. Another might focus only on the smell of tea being boiled in the canteen downstairs from his office.
Here is the uncanny thing McCann finds again and again about the miraculous: That it is inseparable from the everyday. Tea is steeped, ham sandwiches wrapped up in wax paper and taken on the first trans-Atlantic flight. A senator may move mountains, but he also pauses to send his new wife e-mail about their newborn son.
History, this novel reminds, is not just what gets written about. It is the thin wire that threads between these two poles, the personal and the public, the mundane and the incredible. In “TransAtlantic,” Colum McCann walks across it as if falling weren’t an option.
John Freeman is the author of the forthcoming “How to Read a Novelist.”