In June, during his first-ever visit to Northern Ireland, President Obama gave a speech to two thousand young people at the Waterfront Hall, Belfast. Of the two Irish writers he quoted, one—perhaps inevitably—was W.B. Yeats (“Peace comes dropping slow”). The other was Colum McCann: “Peace is indeed harder than war, and its constant fragility is part of its beauty.”
For anyone who disapproves of modern literary hype, the good news is that McCann’s progress to such exalted company has been almost charmingly old-fashioned in its stateliness. He began the old-fashioned way too, with a collection of short stories, Fishing the Sloe-Black River—a book published to quiet murmurs of appreciation in Britain and Ireland in 1994, but that had to wait until he was more established to appear in America. His themes of exile and emigration were already in place (not unexpectedly for a Dubliner who lives in New York) and his prose was already strikingly sharp and lyrical. Nevertheless, it must have taken a certain amount of self-confidence for an Irish writer in his twenties to call the first story “Sisters”—which, give or take a definite article, was also the title of the first story in another debut collection: James Joyce’s Dubliners.
Since then, both McCann’s reputation and the scale of his literary ambition have grown steadily with every novel. Songdogs (1995) was a poignant account of a much-traveled son coming back to Ireland to visit his much-traveled father. This Side of Brightness (1998) told the twin tales of the men who built New York’s subway tunnels in the early twentieth century and the homeless people living there in the present day. Dancer (2003) and Zoli (2006) recounted the dramatic lives of two exiles—Rudolph Nureyev and a fictionalized Romani poet, respectively—from a variety of globe-trotting viewpoints. (In Nureyev’s case, they included his Parisian housekeeper, his London shoemaker, and one of his New York rent boys.)
Finally, in 2009, came a big breakthrough. Let the Great World Spin interwove the first- and third-person stories of a daringly wide range of New Yorkers during the time of Philippe Petit’s 1974 tightrope walk between the Twin Towers, with a coda set thirty-two years later. It won the National Book Award for fiction and then, two years later, the famously lucrative International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.
And now, with TransAtlantic, McCann’s ambition reaches further still—combining fiction and nonfiction more closely than ever and spanning centuries rather than decades. Yet if the scope of his methods has constantly expanded, the themes they express have remained largely unchanged: not only exile and emigration but, even more insistently, the influence of the past on the present, and the consequent belief that the forces that shape our lives are in place long before we’re born. Or, as TransAtlantic’s epigraph from Eduardo Galeano puts it—in the first sign that McCann hasn’t given up …