I have read about the men who dug the excavations for the caissons of the Brooklyn Bridge, but never for the hundreds of miles of tunnels throughout the boroughs of New York. Tunneling is an extremely dangerous occupation, and if possible is even more hazardous when tunneling under water. The men must work in highly pressurized rooms in order to keep the river from collapsing in upon them, and yet the pressure cannot be so great that the air violates the walls of the chamber blowing outward as opposed to being crushed. The book documents a true story of men that were literally pushed through the walls of the tunnel they were digging until ejected in to the river and then being blown out of the water. To live through such an experience has to rank with the most remarkable stories of survival.
The book shares two lives that are revealed in parallel as far as narrative, but are intertwined in practice. The lives of both men are occupied at various times by living/working underground, but ultimately one life is spent and finally ends beneath the river, while for the other it is a refuge that ultimately allows him to emerge once again to life above ground leaving his demons buried.
The author also explores prejudice in a variety of forms, and from the book's very beginning shows prejudice and racism for the absolute stupidity it is. Men of various color and ethnic backgrounds enter a vicious working environment where they not only work together but are willing to risk their lives for each other. Black, white, Irish, Italian, Polish, none of these characteristics have any meaning when below ground, once returned to the surface every vile behavior associated with race, and religion once again is in full blossom. Church leaders reinforce the worst and most ignorant tenets of institutional stupidity; de facto Jim Crow rules dehumanize its victims.
Colum McCann does not shy away from any topic of traditional controversy. He takes the reader through generations of a family begun by a white wife and her black husband, their children who are born in to a world that hates them even more than their all black father, if that is possible.
There is one issue I am unclear on and it stems from a quote on the jacket of the book. Frank McCourt writes of McCann's, "having been there", when he writes about homeless living under the city. My question is whether the author did live there for a time while writing this book, or whether he actually was homeless for a period of time. In either event it took courage to live there as an observer, and if the latter, both courage and a willingness to share a desperately difficult and personal part of his life.
Billed as a tale of the "homeless" I found it much more an adult type "Holes"--a magical story that weaves it's way through time, bringing us to a finale that's intertwined with the beginning. It's also a facinating look at the building of the train tunnels between Manhattan and Brooklyn and the men who toiled underground, now largely forgotten. I especially loved the way history repeated itself through time and space, making the tunnels themselves a character in the book.
You won't be disappointed if you read this great work.