This Side of Brightness A Novel

Colum McCann




Trade Paperback

304 Pages


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A New York Times Notable Book
A Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year
A Boston Globe Best Book of the Year

McCann's second novel is a magnificent work of imagination and history set in the tunnels of New York City. In the early years of the century, Nathan Walker leaves the Okefenokee swamps of his native Georgia for New York and the most dangerous job in America. A sandhog, he burrows beneath the East River, digging the tunnel that will carry trains from Brooklyn to Manhattan. In the bowels of the riverbed the sandhogs—black, white, Irish, Italian—dig together; above ground, though, the men keep their distance until a spectacular accident welds a bond between Walker and his fellow sandhogs that will bless and curse the next three generations.

Years later, Treefrog, a homeless man driven below by a shameful secret, endures a punishing winter in his subway nest. In tones ranging from bleak to disturbingly funny, Treefrog recounts his strategies of survival—killing rats, scavenging for discarded soda cans, washing in the snow, sleeping through the cold—in New York's netherworld.

Between Nathan Walker and Treefrog stretch seventy years of ill-fated loves, unintended crimes, and social taboos. The two stories fuse to form a tale of family, race, and redemption that is as beautifully constructed as it is masterfully told.


Praise for This Side of Brightness

"Disturbingly beautiful . . . A dazzling blend of menace and heartbreak."—David Willis McCullough, The New York Times Book Review

“Inside the gritty and perilous lives of the men who dug the tunnels under New York’s East River, Irish novelist Colum McCann finds poetry . . . McCann’s prose shines like the waters of the East River on a bright winter day.”—The Philadelphia Inquirer

"As luminescent as its name, resplendent with dignity, this is one of the few novels in recent memory that I mourned even as I read."—Gail Caldwell, The Boston Globe

"A rarity in this cool era—the urban saga with a social conscience, employing the large canvas once used by Steinbeck and Algren."—Ambrose Clancy, The Washington Post

"Moving, beautifully written . . . Told with gripping realism and subtle detail, the facts—history researched—glow like jewels."—Richard Eder, Los Angeles Times

"This is a novel about New York City and love, interracial marriage, sandhogs who dig tunnels, and men who build skyscrapers, dancing on beams hundreds of feet above the city. Even more, it is, perhaps, the first authentic novel about homelessness, about living beyond this rich city. And you know Colum McCann has been there: in language that makes you claw yourself with pleasure, he powerfully evokes the stink of the present, the poignancy of the past."—Frank McCourt, author of Angela's Ashes

"Whether he's describing the brutal grace of sandhogs on the job or the tragic arc of a family over the course of the American century, Colum McCann doesn't hit one false note. You read him and weep, for he has talent to burn."—Tom Kelly, author of Payback

"Gritty, disturbing, and powerful . . . McCann is a fiercely original talent and a major one."—Andy Solomon, San Francisco Chronicle

"An ambitious, idiosyncratic, moving saga of immigrant life by Irish expatriate McCann. Writing in a prose of considerable allusive power, McCann ingeniously uses the NYC subway as a central symbol . . . In a brisk narrative spanning eight decades, McCann finds in the struggles and fates of Eleanor and Nathan's descendants a vivid outline of the experiences of outcasts and immigrants in American society. In a sharply ironic touch the subway tunnels that had been, for Con and Nathan, a way into the mainstream have become, by the 1980's, a home for those on society's far fringes. Treefrog, a homeless man who's taken shelter beneath Riverside Park, has been so worn down by his social exile that he's uncertain of his past and his own name. McCann further stresses the increasing harshness of modern life by juxtaposing his depiction of Treefrog's impoverished, hallucinatory existence against some transcendent images of the natural world, including, most memorably, a recurrent image of a flock of cranes. A poet's version of a family saga, mingling original and persuasive imagery with a story of great dramatic impact and an angry, convincing criticism of the manner in which American society has repeatedly frustrated the attempts of outsiders to make a home. A haunting novel, by a writer emerging as a major talent."—Kirkus Reviews

"Nathan Walker, a young black man from Georgia, handsome, well formed, and generous, who reminds one of Melville's lovely Billy Budd, comes to New York with love in his heart for his home near the Okefenokee swamp and will build a bond with his fellow sandhogs—two Irishmen, Conn O'Leary and Sean Power, and an Italian, Rudy 'Rhubard' Vanucci. Their bond is cemented in a way they could not have dreamed of when a small hole in the tunnel wall results in a spectacular river blowout. The tragedy shapes Walker's life in a story that spans generations. McCann is a fine and bold writer, as his previous books prove, so it's not surprising to find him tackling the peculiar, unexplored, and violent nexus between the downtrodden and persecuted Irish and African American in a flawed promise land; but one is jolted by the level of understanding he conveys about the needs and compunctions of human existence."—Bonnie Smothers, Booklist

Reviews from Goodreads



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Colum McCann is the author of  books including This Side of Brightness, Zoli, Songdogs and Let the Great World Spin. He has received the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, a Pushcart Prize, and was named the first winner of the Grace Kelly Memorial Foundation Award and the Princess Grace Memorial Literary Award. He lives in New York City.
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  • Colum McCann

  • Colum McCann is the author of the highly acclaimed Songdogs and Fishing the Sloe-Black River, which received the Hennessey Award for Best First Fiction, Ireland's top literary honor. His most recent novel is Dancer. He lives in New York City.
  • Colum McCann


    Colum McCann

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