This collection of short fiction, one novella and three short stories, is intense reading.
The novella which gives the book its title uses the poem by Wallace Stevens, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," as a guide. A few lines of the poem appear at the beginning of each chapter that explicates the thought expressed. The main character of the story is Jim Mendelssohn, a man in his 80s on the last day of his life. It seems an ordinary day for him as he rises with the help of his live-in health aide Sally James and throughout the morning as he reflects on his life. He had been a judge in Brooklyn, a steady, respected man and he writes about his love for his wife, his son Elliott, and his daughter. His life in recent years in an apartment near Lincoln Center has become quite circumscribed. On this last day he is to meet his son at a restaurant a short walk from his apartment where he regularly lunches. We learn that he was killed when someone hit him just outside the restaurant as he left. The police look at this event in many ways: cameras are everywhere, though the snow covered those which would otherwise have clearly shown his attacker. It is their careful looking that eventually uncovers the mystery.
One of the other stories is playful: a writer toys with with a short story he is obligated to write on a deadline. Another tells the story of an Irish woman and the difficulty of caring for the son she and her former husband had adopted in Russia with fetal alcohol syndrome. And another is about a nun who sees the man on television who had kidnapped and raped her in Central America.
In the author's note at the end McCann tells that in the midst of writing these stories he was attacked from behind on the street in New Haven after he had helped his assailant's wife who had also been attacked. He was knocked unconscious, hospitalized and spent some months recovering from the attack. You can read more about his view of this event and its effect on these stories at his website colummccann.com.
Colum McCann, Thirteen Ways of Looking, Random House, 2015, 242 pages.