A Writer’s Writer: Colum McCann’s Thirteen Ways of Looking

Irish writer Colum McCann is best known for his National Book Award winning novel, Let the Great World Spin. Despite winning one of the most prestigious literary prizes around, McCann has worked relatively under the radar over his two decade plus career. He has made frequent appearances in many of the lauded magazine and newspapers that first come to mind when considering the topic, and in some of those pieces, McCann has shown off his talents as a short fiction writer.

It’s hard to classify a writer of fiction today as strictly a short story writer. Novelists often times take breaks between writing long works of fiction by producing shorts. Of course, there are many that prefer to write short fiction, although not nearly as many that strictly read such work. Besides the outliers, Alice Munro and George Saunders, most short story writers are also writers of novels. McCann, a writer of several brilliant novels, including the aforementioned masterpiece, is arguably a better short fiction writer than novelist. He already proved his prowess with Everything In This Country Must and Fishing the Sloe-Black River. Now, we can add the third piece to the puzzle with Thirteen Ways of Looking.

His latest collection contains a novella and three short stories. Leading off with the title story, the novella’s premise is a judge taking the bench to examine his own life. Highly detailed, and remarkably picturesque, readers take the unique journey with a man who spent his life making life altering decisions towards others presiding over his own merits and failures as a man. We live and breathe the man’s daily routines knowing, unbeknownst to him, this morning will be his last. McCann is a writers writer, meaning that his work is likely to appeal to readers interested in stylistic quirks and nuances. He expands on this trait when moving into “What time is it now, where you are?”

The first of three short stories centers around a writer who has agreed to write a short story for the New Years Eve edition of a newspaper magazine. It’s an interesting concept, and McCann unravels it impressively. We watch as the writer hypotheses character details and plot choices. McCann basically invites readers into the mind of a creative person at work. It ends up as a moving piece about soldiers at war during the holidays, and the ones back home.

“Sh’khol” is centered around a mother and her adopted son. Tomas is deaf, but according to Rebecca, he turned to her upon calling his name at the adoption agency when he was just a little boy. Years later, everything has changed. Rebecca’s family fell apart, and Tomas is all she really has left. “Sh’khol” tells the tale of a broken family in a new place. McCann is able to tell a gripping yarn about a mother’s realization of her life as it has become while weaving an a poignant tale about the bond between a parents and their adopted children, and the limits that are tested.

The final story is a character piece about a nun who was once kidnapped and tortured by a man. She stumbles upon a news clip years later and realizes that the man is still alive and free, a surprise to her. What follows is the struggle to accept past terrors and forgive, all the while never being able to totally forget or understand. A woman of God is tested by her discovery, and her interior thoughts are all at once haunting and moving.

Colum McCann’s Thirteen Ways of Looking offers a reflective novella and three short stories that capture and invoke a plethora of emotions. He is a writers writer that never disappoints and his latest offering is no exception.

Steven Petite

About Steven Petite

Steven Petite received his Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing from Cleveland State University and is currently pursuing a Masters in Publishing Studies at Southeastern Louisiana University. His journalism has appeared in Playboy, Huffington Post, Crixeo, Ranker, New York Game Critics Circle, and others. His fiction has appeared in Cigale Literary Magazine. He can be reached at stevenpetite@gmail.com.