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Song of himself

Like Whitman, 'Days' is smart, brimming, and a little wild

Specimen Days
By Michael Cunningham
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 308 pp., $25

O great barefoot poet of the sacred and profane! Walt Whitman played one against the other and doubled his odds by betting on both. ''I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul," he wrote in ''Song of Myself"; if he could call grass ''the handkerchief of the Lord" without a whit of sentimentality, it was because a few lines later he saw it as ''the beautiful uncut hair of graves." America owes its life to Whitman, or perhaps its inner life, because he looked from sea to shining sea -- from its purple mountain majesties to its sweatshops and city streets -- and declared himself visionary orator of all.

Michael Cunningham saw gold in Whitman, saw delusion and possibility both, and has thus made him the sparkling sheen that forms ''Specimen Days" and hovers throughout it. A similar tactic was in play in ''The Hours," Cunningham's 1998 novel that paid homage to Virginia Woolf. But where ''The Hours" reinvented ''Mrs. Dalloway" in three intertwined stories, ''Specimen Days" uses Whitman as ghostly muse; the novel emulates the spirit of Whitman even as it grants him quotations from madmen and thieves. It is a love song of a novel, rich and melancholy and overflowing with smartness, and if it veers off-road a bit at the peak of its race -- well, even that seems a wildness in keeping with America's bard.

''Specimen Days" -- the title comes from a collection of Whitman's autobiographical prose -- is actually three self-contained stories, or novellas, set in different centuries, with iconic figures who reappear in each: a wounded holy child, a merciful mother figure, an Odyssean male. The first, ''In the Machine," is a story of mid-19th-century New York told from the perspective of Lucas the boy -- a child of 12, so often overlooked as ''a misshapen boy with a walleye and a pumpkin head and a habit of speaking in fits." His older brother, Simon, has just been killed at the ironworks, and Lucas has taken on the job of comforting Simon's fiancée, Catherine, who loves the boy and tolerates his outbursts. ''The smallest sprout shows there is really no death," he tells her, having memorized much of ''Leaves of Grass," though he knows better than to display this talent when he goes to work at Simon's factory. The father of the family is an invalid, physically and mentally destroyed by the tannery where he worked; with one son gone and another all but lost to the cruelties of their lives, Simon and Lucas's mother has taken to her bed, deranged with grief. So a little child will lead them: It is up to Lucas to barter for food, work the housing press at the factory, tend to Catherine's sorrows. And while the story captures the Industrial Revolution's personal tolls, it is also an ode to a city and land driven with unstoppable hope and progress -- a world, Lucas recognizes, of ''defiant, uncrushable aliveness."

This Whitmanesque vision of America, a place mesmerizing even its tragedies, links Cunningham's triptych with almost casual grace, so that history repeats itself with startling allusion and precision: The infamous Triangle Factory Fire holds an eerie apprehension of 9/11; the great land unspoiled in the 19th century only makes one shudder for the ruin that is sure to follow. The second piece of the novel, ''The Children's Crusade," takes place just after 9/11, when New York is staggering under its recent fall from grace. Catherine is reinvented here as a forensic psychologist named Cat, a black woman with her own mental demons and tragic past, now answering calls on a 24-hour hot line, consumed with stopping the suicide bombers who are roaming city streets. The characters of Lucas and Simon appear in modern and more menacing forms, with Whitman's genius having been turned into the spooky sermons of a lunatic.

As for the third piece of the novel -- have I mentioned the 4-foot-tall female lizard? Well, no; I've been saving Catareen, because I didn't want to scare anyone off. If the first two stories of ''Specimen Days" are odes to form -- the first a Dreiseresque tale of street realism, the second a detective story -- the last, ''Like Beauty," tips its hat to literary sci-fi, or at least to the futuristic novel. It is sometime in the 22d century, Manhattan has been turned into a grungy theme park (imagine Sturbridge Village meets ''Tales From the Dark Side"), and the new underclass is a reptilian group from another planet who are called Nadians. Catareen is a queenly, mostly silent Nadian who's found work as a nanny; when she's upset or contemplative, she goes into Nadian mode -- her nostrils flare, she refuses to speak. She and Simon (who has undergone almost as extreme a character evolution) meet one day in what's left of postapocalyptic Central Park. Together, they find their way to Luke -- and to the usual fire-and-ice brigade of end-game novels, walking toward the beckoning stars and winds of Whitman's dark continent.

One of the many gifts of ''Specimen Days" is the detailed finery with which Cunningham pulls all this off. Because let's face it; the whole thing sounds more than a little ludicrous: Dickensian child meets modern cop meets lizard lady who's misplaced her spaceship. But the great cohesive elegance of ''Specimen Days" is its understated but confident authorial sensibility -- the mind that envisioned these parallel universes, and the observer's eye that captures the melodious reach of history. Lucas in the first novella finds life a bearable enterprise by embracing its pain and beauty both; Cat, in the second, struggles against the dreary, private truths of a class-bound police system, where ''death itself felt cheap and cheesy." And in Catareen's story, it is a testament to Cunningham's audacious facility that our emerald-skinned heroine is so multilayered and evocative -- that one is as moved by her breathy, singsong communication as by the earlier hymn of 19th-century Lucas spouting poetry.

Unsurprisingly, death and resurrection images abound in ''Specimen Days"; the subject is no doubt one reason Cunningham reached toward the fiery acceptance of Whitman, who dared to cast an eye upon decaying flesh and newborn roses with equal authority. So when a bowl reappears from one story to the next, it seems like grail and temptation both; when a character mildly misquotes Whitman -- ''And to die is different from any one supposed, and luckier" -- the incantation sounds murderous and blissful at once. Poetry is the great equalizer in these three stories, a task Whitman would have heralded and that Cunningham undertakes with barely suppressed narrative delight. ''I am large, I contain multitudes," Whitman sang, and Cunningham must have guessed there was room enough in that splendid ego for him to hitch his wagon to Whitman's firmament.

Readers who want ''Specimen Days" to be ''The Hours" all over again -- splendid and sad and moody as Virginia Woolf -- might be disappointed with this novel. It isn't seamless, and each story has a slightly fleeting feel, as though we are leaving one too soon to get to the next. But there's a quality of plain old pleasure here, too. If ''In the Machine" is as grippingly sorrowful as Little Nell, Catareen's story has an ''E.T." feel that's irresistibly affectionate. Credibly or not, even the crazy people in ''Specimen Days" are eloquent. And Whitman, above all, would have appreciated that.

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