Colum McCann’s Thirteen Ways of Looking

More short stories. The last two books I finished were short story collections and I wasn’t sure I wanted to move on to another. “Shit,” I said, “it’s Colum McCann. You know you’re going to love it.” And I did.

Thirteen Ways of Looking

In “Thirteen Ways of Looking”, the title novella, an elderly, retired judge reflects back on his life during the course of what, unbeknownst to him, will be his last day on this earth. He’s insightful, he’s funny in that funny, old-man kinda way, and he is one rich character! I felt like he was going to totter right off the page with his walking stick and right into my den. I found myself wishing he actually had but that would have really freaked my dogs out! Security cameras record each moment of that final day: Hidden cameras in his home (installed by a son intent on catching the live-in help in something illicit) capture his morning rituals, cameras located in the common areas of his apartment building and on the street paint a picture of his daily, noon-time foray, and the video system at Chialli’s (his usual lunch spot) pieces together his final minutes and seconds. As Judge Mendelssohn takes stock, it feels as if we also have a video link directly into his brain: We’re party to every thought, every memory, every tangent his mind takes, right up until the moment of his demise.

While Judge Mendelssohn is one immensely likeable old dude, his son Elliot is another matter altogether. In the most heartbreaking vignette of the story, Elliot, self-absorbed, self-important asshole that he is, joins Pops for lunch but then spends nearly every minute on his cell phone.

A writer is commissioned to write a New Year’s Eve-themed short story in “What Time Is It Now, Where You Are?” and McCann takes us both into the story the author writes and into the author’s mind as he writes it. It’s absorbing insight into the way a writer thinks, how he inhabits his characters, asks the questions they would ask.

“Sh’khol” is every parent’s nightmare. What happens when you turn your back for that one second (or hour . . . or hours in this instance), when you allow yourself to lapse into inattention for just a little too long? And when the child has special needs, the agony is compounded.

In “Treaty”, a septuagenarian nun realizes that the man who once held her brutally captive has become a proponent of peace.

McCann is a hell of a writer, a true literary heavyweight. He’s one you read for the sheer joy of the way he works the language. It seems effortless from our perspective, but if fiction writing is at all autobiographical, then I think McCann is telling us in “What Time Is It Now, Where You Are?” that writing is anything but easy. Still he makes it look that way. He has a true gift for expressing the inner workings in each of his characters minds: the searching, the questioning, the whys and wherefores, the answers we’re constantly looking for and only sometimes finding, the sheer humanness of just being human. He makes me jealous that I don’t have that gift, dammit!

As an example of the utter realness of McCann’s writing, I keep going back to a passage from “Thirteen Ways of Looking”, as Judge Mendelssohn assesses his lunch-time waitress: “Genuine it seems: she’s not just blowing smoke, like half the waitstaff seem to do every day, their mundanities, nice to see you, have a good day, are you still working on that, sir? I’m eating, young lady, not working.” McCann absolutely nails the laissez-faire attitude of many young people today in this one musing of Mendelssohn’s, and Mendelssohn’s attitude towards it. I have to say that attitude is a pet peeve of mine too, and I’m not nearly so old as Mendelssohn. It’s like when you tell your server, “Thank you”, and they shoot back, “No problem.” Of course it’s “no problem”. It’s YOUR JOB! Whatever happened to “You’re welcome”? Where is Emily Post when we need her? But I digress.

McCann will probably rack up tons of awards and accolades for this collection and deservedly so. These are stories you keep thinking about and reflecting on long after you’re finished. For the title novella alone, I give this collection 5 stars. This one made me want to sing, y’all!

Have you read it or planning on reading it?  Let me know what you think.

A review copy of this book was provided to me by Random House Publishing Group – Random House via NetGalley. I would like to thank the publisher for providing me this opportunity. All opinions expressed are my own.

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