2006 Book Reviews
Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham
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Michael Cunningham’s fourth novel, Specimen Days, tells three interconnected stories. The first, “In the Machine,” is set during the Industrial Revolution. “The Children’s Crusade” is set in the present, and “Like Beauty” is set in the future. The book’s title matches that of Walt Whitman’s autobiography, and Whitman is one of the connections among the three stories. Cunningham’s writing is precise and elegant, his craftsmanship superior. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of the second section, “The Children’s Crusade,” pp. 97-103:
She had missed it. Nobody blamed her, but she shouldn’t have missed it. She was supposedly one of the magic few, one of the ones who could hear the ping of true intention, like a distant hammer driving home a nail, no matter how florid the caller, no matter how unlikely the threat. But she had missed it. When the call came she’d thought: white kid, somewhere between an old twelve and a young fifteen, standard cybergeek sitting in a smelly boy-room that no force on earth could make him clean, surrounded by Big Gulp cups and remote controls; pale, ferretlike underling who lacked inflection of voice or body, who looked grubby even on the rare occasions when he was clean, who had one or two friends exactly like him and spoke to no one else, just his family because it was unavoidable and his tiny band of fellow Igors, with whom he shared a private language and a vocabulary of creepy passions and a proclivity for spending as much time as humanly possible in dim suburban bedrooms that glowed with furtive computer light and smelled of feet and sweaty wool and old cum.
This kid, in various incarnations, was a regular feature of life in the deterrence unit. They were a breed—sad little pockmarked desperadoes half-mad with hormones and loneliness, sitting out there with their dicks in one grimy hand and their cell phones in the other. Nothing about the call had been notably different, none of the danger signs was there. Or so she’d thought. She only half remembered it, at best. No specifics of target or weaponry, just that adolescent-voiced vow to take out an average citizen, because people were, well—what’s wrong with people, tell me—fucking up the world, destroying it—you thinking of anyone in particular, someone specific you want to take out?—doesn’t matter, does it, we’re all the same—not to us, we’re not—I meant it doesn’t matter to the world, it doesn’t matter in geological time—who are you mad at, I think you’re mad at someone, am I right?—no you don’t get it I’m not mad at anyone I’m just going to blow somebody up and I thought I should tell someone.
Cat had blue-tagged it, sent it down the funnel. Then, three days later, she’d heard that ping in the back of her mind when the report came in. Explosion on Broadway and Cortlandt, right by Ground Zero, at least one splattered, two likelies, maybe more. She had by then talked to dozens more potentials, among them a guy who said he was posing as a gay man and going to gay bars to slip poison into other men’s drinks, thus helping to eliminate a few of the people who were sucking the sap from the Tree of Life. She’d talked to an elderly male Hispanic who was going to machete the staff of the public library, main branch, unless they tracked down whoever had been writing insults about him in the pages of the books.
She’d started making lists again. She’d been trying to kick the habit. But after the man who was going to dice the librarians hung up, there it was, right in front of her, in Sharpie on a Post-it:
Harm is in the books
Kill the harmless
It wasn’t crazy. These were her notes. A psychologist took notes. Still, hers could run a little loose. She’d crumpled the Post-it and thrown it away. Given the current climate, she didn’t like the idea of somebody finding those particular words in her handwriting. And okay, she didn’t like the fact that she hadn’t fully realized she was doing it.
Maybe Simon needed to take her away for a few days. Maybe a dose of beach and room service, a dose of pure, undivided Simon, would help her feel less edgy. She’d toss his BlackBerry into the surf, if it came to that. She’d drown it in her pińa colada.
When the news arrived, Cat heard the ping but couldn’t quite remember the call. It came to her with the particulars, which rolled in an hour-plus after the incident. Two splatters, not just one, and barring further developments it seemed that the vaporized one had been rigged with explosives. The other had been identified as Dick Harte, real-estate developer, part of the World Trade rebuild, whose third left-hand finger, wearing a wedding band, had been found on a WALK—DON’T WALK box.
Right. Going to blow somebody up, thought I should tell you. Jesus.
Cat retrieved her report, notified Pete Ashberry. If this kid was the one, she had missed it.
She declined Pete’s offer to go home early. She sat out the remainder of the day, waiting to hear whether they’d picked up any more fragments from the site. She talked to a man who was going to firebomb a Starbucks (no specifics of location) because they insisted on hiring nigger whores. (She dutifully declined to mention the shade of her own skin but did put a hex on the fucker, telepathically.) She talked to another man, Slavic accent, who was going to kill the deputy mayor (why the deputy mayor?) because, as far as she could tell before he hung up, it just seemed like an interesting thing to do.
She kept all her pens in her drawer, off the desktop. It was a little like quitting smoking.
Pete came to her cubicle
at five minutes to five. He was as big as a file cabinet and about that
exciting. But he was a decent man; he wore his troubles bravely. His wife was
going blind. His daughter had married some ecocultist
who’d dragged her to
“Now what?” Cat said. She was in no mood. She should sweeten up—she had after all quite possibly missed it—but if she went all nice and apologetic now, if she started acting like someone who needed forgiveness, she might never get back to herself Screw them if they wanted her meek.
Pete stood in the opening (you couldn’t call it a doorway; it was just the point at which Cat’s four-feet-by-five-feet bled into the greater fluorescence) with his mouth settled. Pete was the only brother in deterrence. His skin was varnished mahogany, his hair an incongruously beautiful silver-gray. When he was stern and focused, you could put a can under his upper lip and push his nose to start the opener function.
“They got a left forearm,” he said. “They got half a sneaker, with half a foot inside. It’s a kid.”
“You ready for this? Kid walked up to this guy, hugged him, and self-detonated.”
“Witness says so. White kid, wearing a baseball jacket, very regular-looking. This is from both our reliables. It’s only the one who says he saw the clinch.”
“Who does Dick Harte turn out to be?” she asked.
“Speculator. Not Don Trump, but big. One of the people who make the high-rises rise.”
“Nothing yet. Lived in Great Neck with wife number two. Some kids, some pets. You know.”
“Think he knew the boy?”
Everyone would hope so. Everyone would be saying a silent prayer right now, to the effect that the kid had been Dick Harte’s illegitimate son, or that they’d been having sex in a park in Great Neck, or whatever. Just don’t let it be random.
Pete said, “We don’t know it was your caller.”
“I have a feeling, though.”
“Yeah, well, I do, too. Want to hear the tape with me?”
“Nothing would please me more.”
She went with Pete down the corridor to the audio room. Pete stopped en route in the lunchroom for a cup of late-day, bottom-of-the-pot coffee sludge, with four Equals. Cat graciously declined. She and Pete went into the audio room, which was in her opinion the least unpleasant place on the premises. It was ten degrees cooler and not quite as relentlessly lit. They sat in the synthetic-plush gray chairs. Aaron had cued the tape for them. Pete punched the button.
Hello. This is Cat Martin. Like everybody, she hated hearing her own voice on tape. Inside her skull it didn’t sound so flat, so harsh. To herself she sounded muscular and musical, smoky, a little like a young Nina Simone.
Hello? There it was again, that throaty boy voice, utterly unexceptional. Nervous, a little squawky, probably thirteen. Are you a policewoman?
And your name is?
I called the police, and they patched me over to you.
What can I do for you?
Nothing. You can’t do anything for me.
His poor mother must have been hearing those words ever since puberty turned her sweet little boy sullen and strange and fetid. Had some mother out there started wondering yet?
Why are you calling, then?
I want to tell you something.
What do you want to tell me?
Silence. She could picture him all over again, desperate little wanker with a room full of slasher-movie posters, summoning his courage. Nothing out of the ordinary, nothing at all.
I’m going to blow somebody up.
I can’t tell you.
Why do you think you can’t tell me?
People have got to be stopped.
Why do you think that?
We’ve got to start over.
You’re thinking of stopping someone in particular?
It doesn’t matter who.
It does matter. Why do you think it doesn’t?
I mean, it doesn’t matter to the company.
The one we all work for.
Who do you work for?
You work for it, too.
Is the company telling you to hurt somebody?
You think I’m crazy, don’t you?
I think you’re angry.
Please don’t talk to me the way you talk to crazy people. I mean, one person doesn’t matter. The numbers don’t crunch in single digits.
You want to hurt somebody who’s hurting you. Is that right?
I can’t talk to you.
Yes, you can. Tell me your name.
I’m in the family. We gave up our names.
Everybody has a name.
I just wanted someone to know. I thought it would be better.
Better for who?
I wasn’t supposed to call.
Shit. There it was.
You can work this out without hurting anybody. Tell me your name.
I’m nobody. I’m already dead.
She had in fact messed up, then. The moment a caller referred to anyone else, it was an automatic red tag. Any caller who claimed to be receiving instructions from a friend, from Jesus, from the dog next door or the radio transmissions that came through the fillings in his teeth, got promoted to the next level of seriousness. This one had been vague enough—he wasn’t supposed to call anyone—but still. She should have kept him talking, shouldn’t have pressed quite so hard for his name.
Had she been making a list? Probably. Had she paid more attention to her list than she had to the caller? Hoped not.
“‘I’m in the family,’” she said. “‘We gave up our names.’ What’s that about?”
“Your guess is as good as mine.”
“Is there a rock band with lyrics like that?”
“The family. What family?”
“The Brady Bunch. The Mafia. IBM. You know.”
Right. She’d had one just the other day. Mild-voiced citizen who’d said he was going to .start driving around the country and running down illegal immigrants, under orders from Katie Couric. They tended to like the idea of working for celebrities or international corporations.
“I do,” Cat said. “I do know.”
Pete said, “You shoulda red-tagged it.” He wasn’t nasty about it. Simple statement of fact. These things happened.
“You checked the trace?” she asked.
“Pay phone. Corner of
“Bound to happen, sooner or later.” He slurped his coffee.
“I didn’t think it would happen to me.”
“Go home. Tell your boyfriend to make you a drink and take you someplace nice for dinner.”
“Think he was really as young as he sounded?”
“That I couldn’t tell you. Wait for forensics.”
“How would a kid get a bomb?”
“I’d say where they get all their deadly weapons. From his parents.”
“Nothing. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Right. Have a few drinks, get some sleep. Feel better.”
She went back to her cubicle, retrieved her bag. Ed Short, who had the next shift, wouldn’t arrive for another half hour, but the lines were covered; she could slip away a little bit early. She hated to admit it, but now, having heard the tape, she wanted to get out of there as fast as humanly possible.
She said a few quick good-nights to coworkers who were busy at their own phones and didn’t seem to notice that she was leaving before her shift was over. She clipped on down the hail. Although she didn’t like to dwell on it, the division’s offices might have been designed for maximum grimness. Could the cubicle dividers be the color of a three-day-old corpse? Sure. Could greenish light buzz down on everyone from milky plastic ceiling panels? Absolutely. Could the smell of burnt coffee be blown through the air-conditioning ducts? No problem.
Cunningham’s prose is imaginative, beautiful and memorable. Specimen Days will bring hours of reading pleasure.
Steve Hopkins, February 23, 2006
2006 Hopkins and Company, LLC
The recommendation rating for this book appeared
in the March 2006 issue of Executive Times
URL for this review: http://www.hopkinsandcompany.com/Books/Specimen Days.htm
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