Book Review: Songdogs, by Colum McCann

SongdogsSongdogs, by Colum McCann
Picador
1995
212 pages

Here’s how much of a fangirl I am for this guy:

I bought tickets to Colum McCann’s upcoming lecture here in Pittsburgh the first day they went on sale to the general public.

No big deal, right?

Except. Well.

I bought my $15 ticket almost a YEAR IN ADVANCE.

The event’s not until March 10, 2014. Which will probably be a blizzard here in Pittsburgh. In which case, Mr. McCann is cordially invited to hang out in my living room and give his talk. [Note: I wrote this review on August 28, 2013 but just haven’t published it on the blog till now. No blizzard tonight, but clearly, I was prescient about this winter’s crappy weather.] 

So, you top that in literary geekery, why dontcha? I am so freaking excited for this that I am nerdishly preparing by reading as many of his books as I can.

This is proving to be fun homework. After finishing his first novel Songdogs, Mr. McCann is two for two in my book, the first being the incredible Let the Great Word Spin, which I loved

But Songdogs is different. Songdogs takes some getting used to. Because Mr. McCann throws his reader off one’s bearings with a disconcerted sense of place, the narration and the action jumps back and forth – sometimes very quickly, sometimes on the same page. It fluctuates between the present (with Conor home for a week in Ireland, apparently because of visa requirements) and Conor recollecting his travels through Mexico, California, and Wyoming – where he now lives as a rancher – while trying to find his long-lost mother, whom he only knows through his father’s old photographs.

“Mam is just about smiling as she looks down at her hands. It is not an unhappy smile, just a little lost on her face. Maybe she’s wondering what she’s doing here. Wondering what has led her to this. Wondering if life is manufactured by a sense of place, if happiness is dependent on soil, if it is an accident of circumstance that a woman is born in a certain country, and that the weather that gives birth to the soil also gives birth to the unfathomable intracacies of the heart. Wondering if there is a contagion to sadness. Or an entropy to love. Or maybe Mam isn’t thinking this way at all. Maybe she is wondering about the sheer banalities of her day, what she will cook for dinner, what end of the kitchen table she will do her ironing on, when she will get time to wash the white tablecloth, if she should put some aloe on her husband’s hands, hands that are now out of the photograph, pressing down on a button that will open a shutter.” (pg. 138-139)  

Songdogs poses a question for the reader. If one’s life is, indeed, “manufactured by a sense of place,” the symbolism of water and the soil making us who we become, then what of the connections with the biological people we come from who are elsewhere, literally and figuratively, by geography and by choice?

The answers are ours to figure out.

“Curious how different the sense of space is here. In Wyoming I can take off and go walking for miles on end without seeing a soul, only a few cattle scrubbing away on the lands, every now and then a horse breaking the hills. Land like that seeps its way into you, you grow to love it, it begins to thump in your blood. But it’s confined here, the land, the space. Doesn’t feel much like mine anymore – it’s like when I am with the old man, floating around him, not really touching him.” pg. 94)

For the most part, this 1995 novel moves at a slow pace. That’s deliberate, as Mr. McCann is setting you up for some emotional upheaval towards the end. It’s worth it, because by that point you’re so invested in Conor and wondering why his mother left him and his quiet father (an aging, unkept, incredibly foul-mouthed Irish photographer and fisherman) that the climax of the story catches you completely unawares. 

(If you’re bothered by profanity, particularly liberal uses of the f-bomb, choose another book.)

Then, there are also words like these:

“Years later, in America, I was told that Navajo Indians believed coyotes ushered in the Big Bang of the world with their song, stood on the rim of nothingness, before time, shoved their pointed muzzles into the air, and howled the world into existence at their feet. The Indians called them songdogs. The universe was etched with their howls, sound merging into sound, the beginning of all other songs. Long ago, when they told me their stories about Mexico, Mam and Dad, I believed they were true. And I suppose I still do. They were my songdogs – my other by the washing line, my father flailing his way against the current. They tried very hard to tell me how much they had been in love with one another, how good life had been, that coyotes really did exist and sing in the universe of themselves on their wedding day. And maybe they did. Maybe there was a tremendous howl that reached its way all across the desert. But the past is a place that is full of energy and imagination. In remembering, we can distil the memory down. We can manage our universe by stuffing it into the original quark, the point of burstingness.

It’s the lethargy of the present that terrifies us all. The slowness, the mundanity, the sheer plod of each day. Like my endless hours spent strolling through Mexico. And my father’s constant casting these days. His own little songdog noise of a fishing line whisking its way through the air.” (pg. 72-73)

Songdogs may not be for everyone. It’s easy to think about casting aside. In the end, it’s one of those intense novels that you appreciate much more after finishing it – and want to immediately start reading again.

5 stars out of 5