Executive Times






2008 Book Reviews


Man Gone Down by Michael Thomas








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By reading Michael Thomas’ debut novel, Man Gone Down, you’ll be spending four days in an intense and flowing stream of the action and reflection of a 35 year old unnamed narrator, during one summer of his discontent. This narrator is as complicated and as conflicted as our world. Born poor, “Black Irish Indian,” and smart, he went to white schools and was neglected by alcoholic parents. He abused alcohol himself, dropped out of college, married a white woman and has three children. While his wife is visiting her mother with the children, he’s trying to piece together enough money for them to keep living in New York, and to pay the tuition for his children’s education. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of Chapter 2, pp. 11-13:


The last time I saw them was late July at Edith's. The boys and I were in the kitchen. X was naked and broad jumping tiles, trying to clear at least three at once. C had stopped stirring his potion, put down his makeshift magic wand and was pumping up a soccer ball. I was sip­ping coffee, watching them. We were listening to the Beatles. C was mouthing the words, X was singing aloud while in the air. As he jumped, he alternated between the lyrics and dinosaur names: Thump. "Dilophosaurus." Jump. "She's got a ticket to ride ... " Thump. "Parasaurolophus." His muscles flexed and elongated—too much mass and too well defined for a boy, even a man-boy, especially one with such a tiny, lispy voice. He vaulted up onto the round table. It rocked. I braced it. He stood up and flashed a toothy smile.

"Sorry, Daddy."

X looks exactly like me. Not me at three years old, me as a man. He has a man's body and a man's head, square jawed, no fat or soft­ness. He has everything except the stubble, scars, and age lines. X looks exactly like me except he's white. He has bright blue-gray eyes that at times fade to green. They're the only part of him that at times looks young, wild, and unfocused, looking at you but spinning ev­erywhere. In the summer he's blond and bronze—colored. He looks like a tan elf on steroids. It would seem fitting to tie a sword to his waist and strap a shield on his back.

X could pass. It was too soon to tell about his sister, but it was obvi­ous that C could not. I sometimes see the arcs of each boy's life based solely on the reactions from strangers, friends, and family the reac­tion to their colors. They've already assigned my boys qualities: C is quiet and moody. X is eccentric. X, who from the age of two has be­lieved he is a carnivorous dinosaur, who leaps, claws, and bites, who speaks to no one outside his immediate family, who regards interlop­ers with a cool, reptilian smirk, is charming. His blue eyes somehow signify a grace and virtue and respect that needn't be earned­—privilege—something that his brother will never possess, even if he puts down the paintbrush, the soccer ball, and smiles at people in the same impish way. But they are my boys. They both call me Daddy in the same soft way; C with his husky snarl, X with his baby lisp. What will it take to make them not brothers?

X was poised on the table as though he was waiting in ambush. C had finished pumping and was testing the ball against one of the four-by-four wooden mullions for the picture window that looked out on the back lawn. Claire came in, holding the girl, and turned the music down.

"Honey, get down, please." X remained poised, unlistening, as though acknowledging that his mother would ruin his chance of making a successful kill.

"He's a raptor," said his brother without looking up.

"Get down." She didn't wait. She put down the girl, who shrieked in protest, grabbed X, who squawked like a bird, and put him down on the floor. He bolted as soon as his feet touched the ground and disappeared around the corner, growling as he ran.

"They'll be here soon," said Claire. "Can everyone be ready?" "Who'll be here?" mumbled C. His rasp made him sound like a junior bluesman.

"The Whites." His shot missed the post and smacked into the glass. Claire inhaled sharply.

"Put that ball outside."

C looked at me. I pointed to the door. He ran out.

"No," Claire called after him. "Just the ball." The girl screeched and pulled on her mother's legs, begging to be picked up. Claire obliged, then looked to me.

"Look what the new world hath wrought, ' " I said.

She looked at the table, the ring from my coffee cup, the slop in the bowl C had been mixing, and the gooey, discarded wand. I shrugged my shoulders. "To fight evil?"

"Just go get him and get dressed. I'll deal with the other two."

I put my cup down and stood up at attention. "The Whites are com­ing. The Whites are coming!" When we moved out of Boston to the near suburbs, my cousins had helped. I'd ridden in the back of their pickup with Frankie, who had just gotten out of Concord Correc­tional. We'd sat on a couch speeding through the new town, follow­ing the trail of white flight with Frankie shouting, "The niggers are coming! The niggers are coming!"

I snapped off a salute. My girl, happy to be in her mother's arms, giggled. I blew her a kiss. She reciprocated. I saluted again. The Whites were some long-lost Brahmin family friends of Edith's. As a girl Claire had been paired with the daughter. They were of Bos­ton and Newport but had gone west some time ago. They were com­ing to stay for the week. I was to go back to Brooklyn the next day and continue my search for a place to work and live. "The Whites are coming." Claire wasn't amused. She rolled her eyes like a teen­ager, flipped me the bird, and headed for the bedroom.

I went outside. It was cool for July and gray, no good for the beach. We'd be stuck entertaining them in the house all day. C was under the branches of a ring of cedars. He was working on step-overs, fox­ing imaginary defenders in his homemade Ronaldo shirt. We'd made It the summer before—yellow dye, stenciled, green indelible marker. I'd done the letters, he'd done the number nine. It was a bit off center and tilted because we'd aligned the form a bit a-whack. It hadn't been problem at first because the shirt had been so baggy that you couldn't detect the error, but he'd grown so much over the year, and filled it out, that it looked somewhat ridiculous.

He passed the ball to me. I trapped it and looked up. He was stand-about ten yards away, arms spread, palms turned up, and mouth ape.



Thomas is a gifted writer, and he manages the intensity of Man Gone Down with great skill. If there’s a first novel you’re willing to savor this year as a way to meet a new writer, consider Man Gone Down at the top of your list.


Steve Hopkins, March 21, 2008



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