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Review: New short fiction collection by Colum McCann

October 12, 2015 GMT

“Thirteen Ways of Looking” (Random House), by Colum McCann

Each chapter of the title novella in Colum McCann’s hauntingly beautiful new collection of short stories begins with a stanza from Wallace Stevens’ poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”

But instead of blackbirds, the sky above retired judge Peter Mendelssohn is filled with cameras, tracking his movements on the fateful day when he is assaulted outside a Manhattan restaurant. Later, detectives will pore over the footage, seeking to solve the mystery. Detectives, poets — both know “the truth is laborious ... chiseled and worked into being.”

The 82-year-old Mendelssohn is a vibrant character whose personality is revealed in a stream of consciousness as his mind jumps from thought to thought, often pausing to rant about modern life.

He complains about the heat in New York apartments — “All these underground steam pipes and oil trucks and board meetings about boilers, and Nobel-winning engineers, and smarty-pants architects ... and still all you get is a terrible clack clack clack in the morning.” He laments the lost art of reading newspapers on commuter trains — “perfect folds right along the storylines, four little corridors of broadsheet.” He worries about his memory; he misses his late wife.

Another story features a single mother raising her deaf son in a cottage along the Irish coast. She is a translator, struggling to find the precise word in English for the Hebrew word “sh’khol” — “losing a child.” Her linguistic labors track the story’s heart-wrenching developments.

Like the novella, the story “Treaty” also deals with “slippages of memory” — in this instance in a Maryknoll nun who believes she has seen in a brief TV clip the paramilitary commander who tortured and raped her decades ago. Now he has a new name and an invitation to participate in peace talks. Over the years she has struggled to forgive him. Now she feels compelled to confront him.

The least engaging story finds an Irish writer in New York under pressure to meet a deadline for a story. It cycles between his frustration at not being able to fully imagine the plot and characters and tantalizing glimpses of the story itself — about a U.S. soldier at a remote Afghan outpost on New Year’s Eve. In the end it’s a story about the difficulty of writing a story — how many layers do you need to peel back to create a believable character? McCann, of all writers, needn’t worry. He knows.