Books

BOOK REVIEW

‘Thirteen Ways of Looking’ by Colum McCann

paul blow for the boston globe

Is it cheating to peek at the author’s note at the back of a book before you’ve read the whole thing? Risky, maybe, if you’re spoiler shy, but it doesn’t feel like breaking the rules, the way it does if you skip to the finish to see how things turn out.

Colum McCann’s note at the end of his stellar “Thirteen Ways of Looking,” a suspenseful and moving collection of three stories and the title novella, includes one small spoiler that I won’t repeat, but that’s not what makes it startling.

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“These stories were primarily completed in 2014 on either side of an incident that occurred in New Haven, Connecticut, on June 27, when I was punched from behind and knocked unconscious, then hospitalized, after trying to help a woman who had also been assaulted in the street,” he writes.

Of the themes that thread through some or all of these stories — the degradations of old age, the insidious fissures that can unbind a family, the innumerable electronic eyes that gaze on us as we move through the world — violence doesn’t seem primary, yet it is undeniably present.

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McCann (“Let the Great World Spin”) builds the novella around the puzzle of an old man’s homicide. A Marine in Afghanistan anchors the briefest story, “What Time Is It Now, Where You Are?,” and in “Sh’khol,” the keening Irish mother of a missing boy wears a fresh bruise that he left on her face. In the final story, “Treaty,” a Maryknoll nun is jolted back to a traumatic past when she spots, on television, the man who imprisoned, raped, and mutilated her decades earlier in Colombia.

Peter Mendelssohn, the 82-year-old retired New York judge at the center of the novella, has affluence as a cushion against encroaching helplessness. His mind is intermittently shrouded in fog; his body is prone to betrayals; and the wife he loved has left him widowed. But he conducts himself with what frail dignity he can muster. Sally, his tender Caribbean caregiver, abets him in that, her presence allowing him to keep living at home on the Upper East Side.

Divided into 13 parts, each beginning with a stanza of Wallace Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” it is a kind of intrigue, each segment allowing a different view of events. Security cameras — in Peter’s apartment, in a restaurant, on the street, in the subway — provide the evidence, but even they don’t see everything.

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Set during a snowstorm, this is a detective story blanketed with softness, into which McCann folds an acid-etched study of gender, race, and class relations and an entertaining, emotionally on-target portrait of paternal dismay. “Just look after yourself,” Peter tells his only son, Elliot, an odious hedge-fund boor, at the end of their lunch the day Peter is killed.

“Which is not what he meant to say at all. Rather he should have said: Don’t be despicable, Elliot. Stop twisting women’s arms. Display some heart. Stop whining. Show some character. Grow up. Talk to me about our gone days. Give me something to kvell over.”

Peter has the poignant vulnerability of any lion in winter. Yet, as much as the novella is about the mystery of a death, it’s also about the failures of a life: the sins of the father amplified out of all proportion in the sins of the son.

“What Time Is It Now, Where You Are?” is a quick, clever, contemplative sketch: a New Year’s Eve story about writing a New Year’s Eve story.

“Sh’khol” is more substantial, a Christmas tale set on the Galway coast, where a divorced woman gives her troubled adolescent son a wetsuit as a gift. The next morning he disappears. Agony, tension, self-recrimination, public fascination with the search — McCann draws them beautifully, and it’s impossible not to worry: Will he drown this boy at Christmas?

Isolation figures in all of the stories in “Thirteen Ways of Looking,” but Beverly, in “Treaty,” may be the most solitary. An Irish nun with a “maverick routine of aloneness,” she travels to another continent to pursue her tormenter, propelled by an image she glimpsed late at night on TV.

What she is seeking, really, is peace, and we want badly for her to find it. But the sister’s mind has gone fuzzy lately. A snippet of video told her a tale. Was it true? Uncertainty and unease, Beverly’s and our own, are pervasive.

McCann, in his author’s note, says it was after he was assaulted — by a man who had just laid flat his own wife — that he wrote of Beverly recognizing her attacker.

Knowing that, you can’t help wondering how much of Beverly’s pain is his pain, how much was born of sympathy for the woman whose husband pounded them both, and how desperately McCann, too, might have sought tranquility after his own trauma.

The effects of violence reverberate through all of these stories, whose characters detect an absence of safety even if they don’t perceive any immediate threat. There is a common yearning for a sense of serenity — a refuge from the chaos.

In his victim-impact statement, posted on his website, McCann tells of having suffered “a series of punches behind the punch”: physical and psychological trauma that left him “for long stretches . . . unable to write.” This collection is an assertive counterpunch, in nonviolent form, from an author who’s regained his footing.

THIRTEEN WAYS OF LOOKING

By Colum McCann

Random House, 242 pp., $26

Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at laura.collinshughes@gmail.com.
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