A winning debut

Man Gone DownMichael Thomas published his first novel, Man Gone Down, in 2007. He won much critical acclaim for the work, landing it on several “best of the year” lists in December 2007.

The book caught my attention on one of those lists and eventually landed in my reading hands in February 2008. I thought I was at the tail end of the excitement, but here it is two years after publication, and Thomas’s debut is still winning attention.

This month, Man Gone Down received the 2009 International Impac Dublin Literary Award. According to The New York Times(6.23.09), the award drops the tidy sum of approximately $138,000 into Thomas’s pocket.

If you’ve missed this book along your recent reading way, don’t shrug it off.  Man Gone Down is one of those novels that resonates “classic” due to its enduring story of a protagonist wrestling with disheartening realizations about where he’s been, how he got to present circumstances and if he can salvage his promising future. 

Michael Thomas award photo; Jason Clarke, photographer
Michael Thomas award photo; Jason Clarke, photographer

That protagonist is a 35-year-old African American man married to a white woman from a wealthy East Coast family. They have three children, and they’re broke. 

His wife has gone to live with her mother, giving her husband the ultimatum that in four days he must come up with the $12,000 they need to keep their kids in a private school, get a new apartment and put their life back in order.

This unnamed narrator is an intelligent, obstinate and vulnerable man with impressive, discerning commentary that draws from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. (He failed to complete a dissertation on Eliot in college.) The poetic references advance the story into philosophical, eternal spaces of life purpose and keep it from descending into a predictable account of cultural black/white, rich/poor divides.

What evolves, then, from the commentary, poetry and life events is a penetrating story about a black man pressured to succeed in white society. He feels artificial and man-made, trying to force himself into expected stereotypes that just don’t fit.

In the last chapter, he delivers this closing message, this last line from Eliot’s “East Coker” Quartet: “In my end is my beginning.”

The finalists for the Impac Dublin prize included books from the United States, Norway, India, Pakistan and France.

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