Excerpt from TransAtlantic by Colum McCann, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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A Novel

by Colum McCann

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  • First Published:
    Jun 2013, 320 pages
    May 2014, 336 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Poornima Apte

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Print Excerpt

He leans into the mouthpiece of the phone, decides against it.

THEY RISE EVENLY. Side by side in the open cockpit. The air rushing frigid around their ears. Brown taps out a message on the transmitter key to the shore: All well and started.

The telephone is a series of wires wrapped around their necks to pick up speech vibration. To listen, they have earpieces tucked beneath their soft helmets.

Twenty minutes into the flight, Alcock reaches under his hat and rips the cumbersome earpieces out, throws them down into the blueness. Too bloody sore, he mimics.

Brown gives a simple thumbs-up. A shame that. They will have no other means of communication now—just scribbled notes and gestures, but they have long ago mapped their minds onto each other's movements: every twitch a way of speaking, the absence of voice a presence of body.

Their helmets, gloves, jackets, and knee boots are lined with fur. Underneath, they wear Burberry overalls. At any height, even behind the sloping windscreen, it is going to be freezing.

In preparation, Alcock has spent three evenings in a walk-in fridge in St. John's. One night he lay down on a pile of wrapped meat and failed to sleep. A few days later Emily Ehrlich wrote in the Evening Telegram that he still smelled like a freshly cut side of beef.

SHE STANDS WITH her daughter at the third-floor window, hands on the wooden frame. They are sure at first that it is an illusion, a bird in the foreground. But then she hears the faint report of the engines, and they both know they have missed the moment—no photograph either—yet there is also a strange exaltation about seeing it from a distance, the plane disappearing into the east, silver, not gray, framed by the lens of a hotel window. This is a human victory over war, the triumph of endurance over memory.

Out there, the blue sky lies cloudless and uninterrupted. Emily likes the sound of the ink rising into her fountain pen, the noise of its body being screwed shut. Two men are flying nonstop across the Atlantic to arrive with a sack of mail, a small white linen bag with 197 letters, specially stamped, and if they make it, it will be the first aerial mail to cross from the New World to the Old. A brand-new thought: Transatlantic airmail. She tests the phrase, scratching it out on the paper, over and over, transatlantic, trans atlas, trans antic. The distance finally broken.

FLOATING ICEBERGS BELOW. The roughly furrowed sea. They know there will be no turning back. It is all mathematics now. To convert the fuel into time and distance. To set the throttle for the optimum burn. To know the angles and the edges, and the spaces in between. Brown wipes the moisture from his goggles, reaches into the wooden compartment behind his head, grabs the sandwiches, unwraps the waxed paper. He passes one to Alcock who keeps one gloved hand on the yoke. It is one of the many things that brings a smile to Alcock's lips: how extraordinary it is to be munching on a ham-and-butter sandwich put together by a young woman in a St. John's hotel more than a thousand feet below. The sandwich is made more delicious by how far they have already come. Wheat bread, fresh ham, a light mustard mixed in with the butter.

He reaches back for the hot flask of tea, unscrews the cap, allows a wisp of steam to emerge.

The noise rolls through their bodies. At times they make a music of it—a rhythm that conducts itself from head to chest to toes—but then they are lifted from the rhythm, and it becomes pure noise again. They are well aware that they could go deaf on the flight and that the roar could lodge itself inside them forever, their bodies carrying it like human gramophones, so that if they ever make it to the other side they will still, always, somehow hear it.

Excerpted from TransAtlantic by Colum McCann. Copyright © 2013 by Colum McCann. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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