Brooklyn Supreme Court, Christianity, Colum McCann, Coming of Age Fiction, crime stories, detective stories, Evil, Faith, Fiction, Isaiah, law, Literature, Maryknoll Sisters, New York City fiction, Poetry, Religion, Sh'khol, Short Stories, Thirteen Ways of Looking, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, Wallace Stevens
Colum McCann, the author of the short story compendium “Thirteen Ways of Looking”, is best known for his novels “Let the Great World Spin” and “Transatlantic”. This compendium is my introduction to his writing.
The first story is “Thirteen Ways of Looking.” It is a long short story or a novella depending on your point of view. Each chapter begins with a few stanzas from Wallace Stevens poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”. The entire poem can be found at http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/174503. The meaning of the poem is illusive. Some interpretations can be found at: http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/s_z/stevens/blackbird.htm.
The beginning of the second chapter of the story reads ” I was born in the middle of my very first argument.” I loved the line, because I believed the story was to be about a family enveloped in conflict. In fact, the story does involve this, but the line is intended to be the opening line of a memoir of a Brooklyn Supreme Court judge. The judge keeps editing the line. The argument that is referenced, is a legal argument, that reflects his term on the bench. While initially disappointed I became immediately engaged in the story because the venue is in my environs and Mr. McCann, a New York resident, knows Brooklyn and the hangouts of what are known as Court Street lawyers very well. The term “Court Street” lawyer is used derogatorily by other New York lawyers. The term is synonymous with ambulance chasers, who don’t really care about their clients. This is of course a generalizations, but it does reflect that Brooklyn Supreme Court is held in very low esteem by other lawyers and judges. The latter are elected and are the product of the Brooklyn Democratic machine. The Supreme Court in New York State, is an oxymoron, as it is the trial level court (the lowest court) in the New York State legal system, the Court of Appeals being the highest court and comparable to what The Supreme Court is in the U.S. Federal Court system. Judge Mendelssohn was a criminal court judge. He is 85 years old and lives alone with his caretaker, a woman from Tobago who is supporting her son back home. He has an indifferent, obese, mannerless son Elliot, who runs a hedge fund and trades women as well as securities.
” The baldness, the bigness, the stupidity, in a house designed to bore the living daylights out of visitors, no character at all, all blond wood and fluorescent lighting and clean white machinery, not to mention his brand-new wife, number three, a clean white machine herself, up from the cookie cutter and into Elliot’s life, she might as well have jumped out of the microwave, her skin orange, her teeth pearly white. A trophy wife, but why the word trophy? Something to shoot on safari?”
Judge Mendelssohn is a kindly and gracious gentlemen who loves his little boy, but not what he has grown into. His daughter lives and works in Israel and is a caring person. Judge Mendelssohn wife is deceased and as the love of his life he misses her greatly.
The story becomes a crime/detective story and is engaging. The second story “What Time is it Now, Where You Are?” seems to be a filler. It is thankfully short and is a story about outlying and writing a short story. Never a good idea.
The third story “Sh’Khol” more than makes up for the second. Sh’khol is a Hebrew word that translates “bereavement”. It is more than that, it means the loss of someone young by a family member, mainly the death of a child. It can be found in Isaiah 47:9 the prophecy being roughly translated as follows:
“But these two [things] shall come to thee in a moment in one day, the loss of children [sh’khol] and widowhood: they shall come upon thee in their perfection for the multitude of thine sorceries, [and] the great abundance of thine enchantments.”
The concept of horeh shakul is used to describe a parent who has lost a child in Hebrew.There is no comparable word in English, such language being reserved for loss of spouses. Mr. McCann notes there is no word for it in Irish, Russian, French, German and other languages, although there are analogues in Sanskrit and Arabic. The absence of a noun perhaps is a product of legal systems, but is a gaping hole in language, considering other useless verbiage.
The story concerns the loss of a deaf son by a divorced mother living on the Irish coast. It is both a coming of age story, a mother-son story and a drama revolving around the search for the child and a mother’s anguish.
The last story is “Treaty.” An elderly Maryknoll Sister sees on TV her right-wing torturer when decades earlier she was held captive in Columbia. He has recast himself as left-wing defender of miners acting as a diplomat in London. She confronts him. The theme is the challenge of faith in the face of pure evil. The physical assault, although vastly different, is drawn from the author being mugged while in the defense of a woman. The Author’s Note reveals that theidea of the punch in “Thirteen Ways of Looking” preceded the mugging, but the recognition of the Sister’s attacker in “Treaty” was a result of the mugging. In life, Mr. McCann did not see who assaulted him from behind.
“Treaty” captivates throughout as does this collection of short stories. It makes me look forward to reading Mr. McCann’s novels.