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Tunneling into the heart of an underworld

THIS SIDE OF BRIGHTNESS

By Colum McCann

Metropolitan Books, $23

Reviewed by ANDY SOLOMON

When Colum McCann's gritty, disturbing and extremely powerful second novel opens in 1991, "Treefrog" Walker has lived for four years among the other "moles'" in the miles of subway tunnels beneath New York City.

Seven levels in all, these dank corridors carpeted with crack vials, echoing with beatings and stabbings, seem a contemporary Dantesque hell where Treefrog has seen them, "the truly damned." He's convinced a shameful secret has damned him as well.

Treefrog's torment has a 75-year prologue, which makes up the bulk of McCann's closely researched narrative. It begins with 19-year-old Nathan Walker, Treefrog's grandfather and the novel's and Treefrog's hero, whose story is interwoven with his grandson's in alternating chapters.

For two years Nathan, a muscular black migrant from Georgia's Okefenokee swamps, has dug subway tunnels beneath the East River. It is 1916. Sweating beside Poles, Italians and Irish, he enjoys the closest thing to freedom he's ever felt; he "knows there is a democracy beneath the river. In the darkness every man's blood runs the same color." But that freedom comes with a steep price in danger. The tunnels' high mortality rate makes these "sandhogs" accept one basic law: "You live as long as you do until you don't."

When a tunnel wall collapses one day, sucking Nathan into the river, his three closest friends grab on to save him. Reaching the surface moments later, only three of the four remain alive.

Out of love and loyalty, Nathan visits and helps support Con O'Leary's widow and daughter every Sunday thereafter. Inevitably, Maura and baby Eleanor O'Leary come to love Nathan. But as she grows from girl to woman, Eleanor comes to love him in a way America's racial divide makes dangerous and humiliating. At 17, she marries the 36-year-old Nathan.

Theirs is a world where Nathan gets beaten with pickax handles for walking the street, pedestrians yell "Nigger lover!" at Eleanor, they are refused admission to movies and restaurants, bricks get hurled through their Harlem bedroom window and Nathan cannot see his dying mother-in-law because the nurses "cannot fathom a Negro at any white woman's dying bed." At its most pernicious, fear of racism will even lead the devoted, long-suffering Eleanor one day to deny her own son.

Now her grandson Treefrog sleeps among rat droppings and maggots, takes weekly showers beneath dripping steam pipes, warms himself in the New York Public Library and enjoys the luxury of its porcelain toilet.

Treefrog's grandfather had introduced him to these tunnels. One day, at 89, while showing him where Maura O'Leary's wedding ring lies, Nathan was killed, setting off a grief so deep that it unhinged his grandson. Now Treefrog grows increasingly obsessive-compulsive, reaching out everywhere to reclaim Nathan's presence, even when he senses it may lie in places he is forbidden to touch.

While this novel revisits New York scenes of subterranean alienation reminiscent of early Madison Smartt Bell and even Ralph Ellison and covers territory largely overlapping George Dawes Green's 1994 The Caveman's Valentine, McCann's is still a fiercely original talent and a major one.

McCann may be subject to an occasional cliche ("On the days when his fingers don't give up the ghost, Walker makes furniture") or overly clever archness ("Walker tells her things that help her sleep, things he invents and remembers and, by remembering, invents"), but bold flights of poetic description invite errors of excess. McCann briskly switches voice, tense and viewpoints with authoritative command, capturing in a taut plot and affecting characterizations the past century of our history. He creates a world alternately chilling and poignant.

In this multileveled world of moles and sandhogs, we get glimpses of paradise, long stares at hell, and ultimately the geography of purgatory, how love can lead us into it and perhaps out again. As with Bell and Ellison, we find here a writer destined to be among our most substantial.

Andy Solomon is a professor of English at the University of Tampa.

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