This Side of Brightness is one of the most lyrically gorgeous novels I’ve read in quite some time, with quietly lovely and delicate sentences and descriptions that reveal their subjects’ inherent dignity and grace, whether those subjects are 1920s “sandhogs” (diggers who first built the New York City subway tunnels) or the modern day homeless residing in those same tunnels. As that last sentence might suggest, Brightness follows two stories: one is that of Nathan Walker, bonded with his fellow sandhogs for life by a spectacular accident that occurs in the novels early pages; the other is that of Treefrog, who has now made a home for himself in the tunnels that Nathan helped dig. I can’t talk much about either story without giving away plot points, but suffice it to say that the material seems well-suited to McCann’s gifts as a writer, and that his eye for isolated spots of beauty in otherwise rugged worlds is put to very good use—particularly in Treefrog’s sections.
The novel has flaws, of course: it follows the two stories parallel for two-thirds of the book, and when the sandhogs’ story eventually intersects with the tunnel dwellers’ the collision is predictable, and not entirely effective. The twin storylines also create a peculiar imbalance in the pacing. Nathan’s sections, spanning seventy years, feel rushed occasionally, while Treefrog’s sections, spanning slightly over a week, often feel needlessly elongated, as McCann loses himself in the minutia of Treefrog’s world at the expense of his narrative momentum. The conflict in Treefrog’s section is also much less gripping than in Nathan’s, and weighting them equally seems like a mistake. McCann’s eye for artistic detail, however, sustains the choice. Great swaths of time in Nathan’s portions are accented by crystal clear details and scenes which slow the exposition, while Treefrog’s portions are given remarkable precision and authenticity, which (most of the time) makes them seem pristine rather than plodding. Even with the structural imbalance, therefore, I would recommend the book. If nothing else, McCann illuminates a world of New York that is often oversimplified or disregarded, giving it life and resonance. The novel has stirrings of a social consciousness that are frequently absent in contemporary fiction, but you never sense McCann exploiting or condescending to his subjects. It is a novel, to borrow a phrase from The Boston Globe, “resplendent with dignity”, and for that reason alone it merits a look.