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A black Gatsby who also does drywall

MICHAEL THOMAS (The New York Times)

Man Gone Down
By Michael Thomas
Black Cat, 431 pp., paperback, $14

There is a type of New York novel that chronicles, at breakneck pace, a few days in which the city turns nightmarishly feral and, for the protagonist, survival itself seems at stake. Saul Bellow's "Seize the Day" and Paula Fox's "Desperate Characters" exemplify the genre . These novels, each well under 200 pages, are like anxiety attacks; to read them is to start breathing shallowly.

But at 400-plus pages, "Man Gone Down," the debut novel of the talented Michael Thomas, is in no such hurry, even if its first-person, unnamed hero is: The handsome narrator, possessed of a sensibility more romantic than practical, has two weeks to come up with the cash to keep his family afloat -- at least for the next few months. The novel is ponderous, if always intelligently written, as it becomes more an impressionistic journey of the mind than a sprint to the finish line. As early as Page 10, Thomas deflates the sense of urgency, as his hero considers that scoring "several thousand dollars" is "unlikely , but not unreasonable."

Pounding the Brooklyn pavements , the narrator tries to finish the novel he believes will be an earner, secure an apartment for his family and collect the security deposit from the old one , keep his two boys in private school , and line up remodeling work . But mostly we find him "thinking about my life" -- namely, his present predicament as a floundering breadwinner and his troubling past as a boy of mixed ethnicity (he reads as black to most people) who was smuggled into a white school district by his well-meaning mother. Caught between two worlds and fitting into neither, the narrator remains something of an enigma, less an invisible man than a failed "social experiment," as he often bitterly refers to himself .

This quietly passionate novel is unapologetically autobiographical -- Thomas and his protagonist are both Boston born; both went to Hunter College, did graduate work at an Ivy League school , married , and settled in Brooklyn to raise three children. Both work construction for fast cash and teach as college adjuncts for piddling checks.

Unlike the hero, the wife has both a name -- Claire -- and an unambiguous race: Whiter than white, she's "a Brahmin princess " whom the narrator idealizes even as she announces at the start of the book, "We need to make $140,000 a year." A tall order for someone who probably earns in the mid-five figures .

Class is an inexhaustible subject for American novelists, especially if the setting is New York . Scratch the surface of the city and you'll find a tribe of substandard earners, overeducated and overindebted, who live on the same blocks and sip the same lattes as those making five times their incomes. The narrator understands this as he clings to a fading bohemian philosophy while wondering how some guys his age managed to become masters of the universe -- like his lawyer friend Marco .

It is no mystery how people like Marco become flush: If you're smart and resourceful and live in New York, and if making money is your sole priority, you can usually find a way to do it. But Thomas's narrator is passive and dreamy. He's turning 35 and not about to compromise his ideals and apply for an MBA or law degree. He mourns the decade he let slip by after he dropped out of grad school and half believes he's "too damaged" to function, imagining he'll end up with nothing , like his two best friends from high school. At one point his buddy Gavin seems to summarize the black male experience in America as he tells him that he's "done better than you think . . . your mother never saw you go down." In the end, in a set-piece scene of such poetic justice that I won't give away its particulars, it is Marco who provides the narrator with the opportunity to rise up.

The novel has a naturalistic bent as Thomas attributes his alter ego's problems to birthright and race, and he is convincing on this point. Still , one wonders what might have happened had he reframed his story and gotten to the psychological meat of things: the ways in which a husband and wife from wildly different backgrounds but with equally impractical natures feed off each other's delusions about making it in America. But Thomas would rather play the black Gatsby striving to earn his golden girl . "Man Gone Down" is a fine, richly textured work, and I hope it does the trick for Thomas, but teaching and putting up drywall and collecting the royalties from a first-time literary novel still may not add up to the annual salary that Brahmin princesses require these days. For that he might need something extra. Calling Oprah.

Drew Limsky is a New York City-based writer and editor.

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