Michael Thomas, Author
Michael Thomas was born and raised in Boston. He received his B.A. from Hunter College and his MFA from WARREN Wilson College. He teaches at Hunter College and he lives in Brooklyn with his wife and their three children.
If you've ever been sure that 2 + 2 = 4 then have a conversation with Michael Thomas.
One of the most interesting and lively conversations that I have recently had was my conversation, over coffee, with Michael. I am a talker and I was out-talked. I consider myself to be a pretty good listener and I was appreciative of the questions Michael asked about the things that I said.
He is as cautious as he is engaging. Funny and serious, complicated and yet pretty much down to earth -
Michael + Thomas = unpredictable
DR: Tell me about your life.
I teach at Hunter College. I coach soccer. I have three kids and a wife. I have a "work in progress" townhouse that I hope to complete before it starts disintegrating and -
I happen to be writing quite a bit now. I just had a novel come out and I am working on two more books...
DR: What is it that you are happiest about right now?
MT: My oldest boy broke his soccer ball juggling record. He had an excellent report card. My second child is embracing piano and I thought he would struggle with it and my daughter seems to be somewhat fearless. Some of my friends seem to be having a good turn in their lives...As for what makes me happy -
my kids and my wife.
PRIZE GIVES AN AUTHOR SOME TIME TO EXHALE
The New York Times Sunday Book Review
by LARRY ROHTER
June 22nd, 2009
Even before the unexpected announcement came this month, Michael Thomas had enjoyed a run of good luck with “Man Gone Down,” his first novel. Published in 2007 in paperback by Black Cat, an imprint of Grove/Atlantic, it got strong reviews, was named to several “10 Best Books” lists that year, including that of The New York Times Book Review, and is now in its fourth printing, with 65,000 copies shipped.
But short of being selected for Oprah’s book club, winning the International Impac Dublin Literary Award may be the best thing that could happen to a new voice like Mr. Thomas. The prize is worth 100,000 euros, or about $138,000, and coincides with publication of “Man Gone Down” in Britain. The announcement immediately generated inquiries from foreign publishing houses.
“I kind of wrote that in a fit,” Mr. Thomas, 41, who teaches literature and creative writing at Hunter College, said of the novel. “I had a bunch of jobs. I was teaching four classes a semester and two or three in the summer, and working construction and coaching soccer and baseball and trying to build my house. I don’t think it is something I could replicate.”
“Man Gone Down” focuses on four increasingly desperate days in the life of an unnamed black narrator living in Brooklyn, whose marriage seems to be falling apart. Brilliant and troubled, he is on the eve of his 35th birthday but is broke, struggling not to lapse back into alcoholism and burdened by the knowledge he has fallen short of the promise he seemed to show as a younger man.
Mr. Thomas acknowledges certain surface similarities to the character he has created. He too grew up in Boston, dropped out of college and scuffled, is a black man married to a white woman (with three children, two boys and a girl, whose first initials correspond to those of the narrator’s children) and has a best friend who is white.
“I was a weird kid, a black kid living in public housing in the wealthiest city east of the Mississippi, who looked at least on the surface to be normal or even cool, even though my head was somewhere else most of the time,” he said. “But I don’t think either of us is pessimistic about race,” he added, speaking of himself and his fictional character.
Read the entire article at NYTimes.com.
DR: When you think about your life, how do you see it in relation to the rest of the world?
MT: Most times? Absurd.
I don't mean that in a negative way. Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus talks about "the absurd condition". It's that moment when the actor realizes that he is divorced from the stage, or when man realizes that he is divorced from his life. Those terms are loaded. I never thought that I would be a father or a husband and I am and allegedly an "O.K." one.
I never thought that I would be alive at this point and I am...
DR: How come?
MT: I was a bit reckless as a boy. As a young man and there didn't seem to be much to live for.
In the face of that absurdity, most of the people that I admired, they died pretty young. Either for a cause - Gandhi, or King or Christ or Medgar Evers or Malcolm X or Jimi Hendrix...people like that or characters in books or in plays or in films...There just didn't seem to be any space in the world for me. There was no group to belong to. And the causes that charged my young life like Civil Rights or ERA or emancipation or redemption of the marginalized or oppressed groups, seemed to be appropriated by many.
I was kind of groomed to be of the next generation of leaders but I didn't take myself seriously.
An interviewer asked me awhile ago
"What did you see yourself as?"
People saw me as being the next Andrew Young but I saw myself as being the next Boxcar Willie. There's always been that struggle...never being able to reconcile who I was or "where" I was and I think that may have to do with who I modeled myself after or maybe just the way I perceived the world.
One of my early heroes is Achilles who is not at home in the world...dead men and women; the heroes and the anti-heroes. You know, it's problematic when you start modeling your life after characters, really believing it...
Now, I am still pretty much the same person that I was when I was seven or twelve or fifteen. Environments have changed but they haven't really and there's this toggling between being at odds with my environment and in harmony with my environment...usually when I feel at home with my environment its in the absence of any kind of structure or people. It's usually a private moment or a very intimate moment with another person.
With my wife or with my kids...
Being at a soccer field or just listening to my boy play piano or sometimes my daughter lines up all of her stuffed animals and strums her guitar and sings to them - in those moments I feel right in my skin. In those moments I don't even notice who I am. Then there is the struggle to perpetuate that moment.
DR: Would you consider yourself to be someone who is satisfied?
MT: No. No. No...
DR: What would it take for you to feel that?
MT: Morbidly? Probably death...
I think that at the center of things is a kind of longing - longing for wholeness which I know intellectually probably doesn't exist...
There is that Muddy Waters song I Can't Be Satisfied. I'm in trouble. I know that sounds dark or gloomy or like maybe I need some Prozac...
DR: Which do you like better questions or answers?
MT: I think that I would like answers. In fact, I think that I demand answers for behavior or the way things are, but there seems to always be questions.
I don't know if I like answers better, it just seems that questions are more honest. Because I don't know, I am always suspicious when people do - know - and have a prescribed behavior or a course of action rather than a question.
I have a lot of questions about the way things work. I like to think that questions point to a kind of optimism but of course -
that depends on the question.
DR: What is the kindest thing that you have done for someone lately?
MT: I don't know. Not be mean?
I don't really think about doing things for people. I kind of just do things or don't do things. Not eviscerate people or not get angry with people because I do have a temper.
Maybe it's just getting my kid a pair of cleats when I can't afford it or holding my daughter's hand when we cross the street. That to me doesn't seem kind it just seems like what you do or don't do.
What do you think?
DR: I think that there are some people who are on mission to rack up gestures of kindness for reasons that have more to do with them than the other person...
MT: Yeah. The action has more to do with themselves rather than the other person...
DR: Yeah. On the other hand I think that there are people who are just more kind than they are in touch with...
MT: I think that I am more in touch with my cruelty and my capacity to be cruel, because -
I have been cruel to people.
I have been cruel to myself.
I operate out of a sense of damage control - trying not to hurt someone's feelings or diminish them in any way.
DR: What is the kindest thing that anyone has ever done for you?
MT: My son went with me on a tour to Boston.
DR: Do you consider yourself an optimist?
MT: Yeah, in the most basic sense of the word, I do.
I am hopeful or I would have put a bullet in my head a long time ago. I got married. I have children. I am dreaming of the world that my children will belong to...
DR: What do you want people to see when they look at you?
MT: I don't know.
I don't have a very fixed sense of self. I don't know who I am. I don't know what I am. But also, I don't know who they are or what they want or what their agenda is or even if they have agendas.
So for them to have a fixed sense of who I am, becomes limiting. I mean I have tried to think that way. Maybe I have A.D.D. and my head just won't sit still long enough to come up with any fixed idea of self. I guess I am human. That's about it...
I am pretty sure I am male. I am pretty sure I'm straight. I am pretty sure of those things. What that means, I don't know.
Different people see different things and perhaps I am those things.
I want people to withhold judgment because, to see those things is one thing. To see that you are black or brown or white or whatever it is; short or tall or gay or straight, is one thing. But to then come to some kind of prescribed judgment or assessment based on what you think that they see, is strange. I find that oppressive. I find it reductive and I find it negating.
The Elliot line in Prufrock:
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
And how should I presume?
If you have already assessed me then what's the point of me even being here? If you already know who I am then "you already have my proxy there" -
then deal with that.
DR: I like the idea of being discovered; of being able to unfold. I like being able to experience someone especially when I think that I "know".
I do a lot of judging though.
MT: Of course. I do it too. I am probably one of the most judgmental people around. But the practice I attempt in that judgment is that there is perhaps room or time; that there is a delay in the act. At least keep the poker face long enough so as not to oppress people with my judgments...
DR: What do you want?
MT: What do I want?
DR: Yeah. Your BIG want.
MT: I want to be Ishmael and I want to go to sea and I want to blow it all off. I want to walk around the island and smell the salt air and be a more crude person and watch. But I seek the whale. That whale vexes me. (I'd strike the sun if I thought it insulted me).
Part of me wants world peace but part of me realizes that in order for the world to align itself to my aesthetic or political or social vision, I may have to become a fascist. You know,
"We're going to do things my way."
Somewhere between Machiavelli and Christ, things get confused.
I want to watch Seinfeld but I want to re-read Don Quixote. I want to be left alone but...I want my kids to grow up undamaged and I know that in trying to protect them I am doing a substantial amount of damage.
I want to make things.
DR: A hundred years from now what do you want to be remembered for?
MT: I have a compulsion to be a social figure, much in the vain of a King or a Dante. One part of me wants to be public and wants to be a civic leader and someone who galvanizes people because I think that I can. I come from disparate places.
I just want to make beautiful things. A beautiful society -that would be great.
It'd be great to have my great grand kids be forced to read my literature in a college course one day...
In a hundred years I want to be remembered as a philanthropist. I'd like to make a lot of money and go knock down every housing project in the Northeast and rebuild them with humane dwellings.
I'd like to completely re-imagine and reconstruct the public school systems in America. That is what I would love to do.
Do you have a couple million dollars so that I can get started?
Man Gone Down: A NovelA beautifully written, insightful, and devastating first novel, Man Gone Down is about a young black father of three in a biracial marriage trying to claim a piece of the American Dream he has bargained on since youth.
On the eve of the unnamed narrator’s thirty-fifth birthday, he finds himself broke, estranged from his white Boston Brahmin wife and three children, and living in the bedroom of a friend’s six-year-old child. He has four days to come up with the money to keep his family afloat, four days to try to make some sense of his life. He’s been getting by working construction jobs though he’s known on the streets as “the professor,” as he was expected to make something out of his life.
Alternating between his past—as a child in inner-city Boston, he was bussed to the suburbs as part of the doomed attempts at integration in the 1970s—and the present in New York City where he is trying mightily to keep his children in private schools, we learn of his mother’s abuses, his father’s abandonment, raging alcoholism, and the best and worst intentions of a supposedly integrated America.
This is an extraordinary debut. It is a story of the American Dream gone awry, about what it’s like to feel preprogrammed to fail in life—and the urge to escape that sentence.
Michael Thomas’s writing recalls some of the great American masters, including Ralph Ellison, but his debut is wholly and distinctly an original. Man Gone Down is a dazzling addition to the literature of and about America today.
Click here to buy Man Gone Down online.