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First time's the charm

Michael Thomas's debut novel is getting national acclaim. Now he wonders what it all means.

Michael Thomas in Allston, where he lived as a child. The "Man Gone Down" author started writing in junior high. (SUZANNE KREITER/GLOBE STAFF)

CAMBRIDGE -- Michael Thomas has been many things since childhood in Boston's Allston neighborhood -- husband, father, poet, carpenter, restaurateur, filmmaker, teacher -- but one thing he never expected to be was a novelist.

His first novel, "Man Gone Down," was the lead review in the Feb. 4 issue of The New York Times Book Review, with a large photo of him in his Brooklyn neighborhood. National attention has followed. But not for the first time, Thomas, 39, finds himself wondering: How does this new thing, being a novelist whose name and face are known to people, relate to the other things I am?

Thomas said the outline of his own life story formed the skeleton of his novel, while major action and details are invented. He and his narrator, who calls himself Ishmael, have much in common: African-American Boston roots; parents divided by class and education; early life in Allston; private elementary school, then public schools in Newton; a love of poetry, music, and the Red Sox; an interracial marriage with three children; a move to Brooklyn, N.Y.

Thomas's mother grew up in segregated Virginia, and his father was from Boston. They met here and had three children, of whom Michael is the youngest. His father, who died last year, majored in philosophy at Boston University, then made his living in sales. David Milton Thomas "had a great number of books and was in love with the Western literary and philosophical canon," his son said. "He read to me quite a bit, things I was far too young to understand. That was our bond."

When the Boston school busing conflict started in 1974, Thomas's parents pulled him out of Allston's Thomas Gardner Elementary School and placed him in Buckingham Browne & Nichols School in Cambridge, where he stayed through fourth grade. His parents' marriage broke up around 1976. After that, Michael spent a lot of time, when his mother was at work, reading his absent father's books. In 1978, Thelma Thomas moved her children to Newton. "I started writing when I was in junior high," he said. "I always kept notebooks and wrote poems."

His father, in particular, had high aims for him. "I was supposed to be something," he said, "professor, ambassador, president -- supposed to go to Harvard. There were good models -- Charles Hamilton Houston, Thurgood Marshall, Dr. King, Andrew Young. But I think I had more Leadbelly in me than those folks." Before the move to Newton, he said, "I had my friends in the neighborhood, who didn't understand why we had to go somewhere else to school, and then my school friends who didn't understand my life on Cambridge Street. One day I'd be horseback riding and the next it would be breaking windows."

In Newton, he says, some were skeptical of his ability. "I had to take standardized tests over and over," Thomas said, "because no one could believe I could score like that, coming from where I was and not having tutors. In the eighth grade, a guidance counselor wanted to steer me toward vocational and technical [curriculum] . I got put in a remedial reading group. I had read ' Hamlet ' and mythology in the fifth grade."

After high school, he went to Connecticut College for one semester, dropped out, and traveled around Europe, returned , and dropped out again. Despite study difficulties, there was poetry -- his own and others'. "I was always startled about how words made me feel," he said, "like when you read something and you are kind of erased -- sort of a moment of no consciousness." He wrote earnest poems about girls he felt drawn to, but never showed them to them.

"He has a beautiful quiet manner," his mother said. "He was always a reader. He marched to his own drummer. He would never chase after girls; they would chase after him. Some people thought he was snobbish, but he was shy."

At Connecticut College, he met a girl named Michaele, a dance major with a dazzling smile. At first they were friends, but eventually they moved to New York together and married in 1993. Their children are 11, 7, and 6.

In New York, he worked as a bike messenger, in a restaurant, in construction, and tried to make it as a singer-songwriter in bars and clubs. But "I had tremendous stage fright." He went to Hunter College and finished his degree. Then came graduate work at Brown University, and a master's in creative writing from Warren Wilson College. While at Brown, he began making short films. Today he teaches creative writing at Hunter.

Over most of those years, Thomas was writing poetry and short stories, but never intended to write a novel. "I just never heard one in my head," he said. Then in 2002, a friend looked at one of his stories and told him, "This is a novel. All your stories are novels." He plunged in and wrote the whole book in about 18 months. A literary agent took it on, and eventually it landed on the desk of Elisabeth Schmitz, executive editor of Grove/Atlantic.

The story concerns a young husband and father, down on his luck, desperately trying to make enough money to hold his family together. Meanwhile, he is dogged by the memory of a brutal childhood violation.

"I read it and fell in love with it," said Schmitz. "It was the most moving, intelligent, provocative book." However, with its rich style and interweaving of memory and present, it's not a simple read. "The lens through which the narrator sees the world is similar to mine," Thomas said, "in dealing with memory and the fragmentation of self and consciousness, reconciling or synthesizing the many broken parts."

Booksellers are wary of first fiction, except in well-worn genres such as mysteries or cop thrillers. "We wanted to get it out there," Schmitz said, "but it's a tough marketplace for intelligent, literary fiction by a debut writer."

So she skipped hardcover and published "Man Gone Down" through Black Cat, a Grove/Atlantic paperback imprint.

Hardcovers are priced at $25 or more, but "Man Gone Down" is priced at $14, which means less risk for publisher and booksellers, and it's within reach of younger readers. The book appeared in January, then came Kaiama L. Glover's rave review in the Times Book Review, which prompted other reviews and national radio attention.

Thomas is gratified by the attention to his novel (there are about 30,000 copies in print so far, and growing -- good sales for a debut) and grateful to everyone who believed in him.

Still, it's clear that this is another new situation, like those he's been in before, that does not fit easily with past experience or his familiar idea of himself. After the Globe interview, he asked, "Why me?" -- as if he could not quite believe the interest, as if there must be a catch.

"It's strange," he said. "It's great to see my wife smile." He dedicates the book to her. "Elisabeth has been an incredible editor, and loyal, and it's great to see her happy. But I don't know what it all means. I still have to teach tomorrow."

David Mehegan can be reached at

Two for the road

I gave Claire my mothers' ring, a white gold band with the world's smallest diamond. And her face fell like I'd just broken her heart, but then the smile came -- long, trembling. I remember being quiet, staying quiet, waiting for her to speak, but she didn't. She kept looking from her ringed finger to me -- back and forth.

She wore ivory. It took place at Edith's in a clearing, just before the rosehips and the dunes. It was five thirty and an August storm was rolling north up the coast. I could hear thunder booming from Rhode Island. Edith gave her daughter away. Claire's veil whipped about her head in the wind. Above us seabirds squawked and flew inland as the clouds rolled out -- charcoal and billowy. I looked out at the congregation, my family on one side, hers on the other. We read our vows and we kissed and the clouds burst. After the rain, a double rainbow appeared with one foot in the little guery pond and the other out in Buzzards Bay. . . . Claire seemed to be truly happy -- raindrops or tears on the end of her swooping nose, unblinking green eyes. Her cheeks were like two suns at magic hour -- what the day was fading into. Double rainbows: double rosy suns. Her grandfather was the only one who shot straight. . . .

"You know," he'd said, taking in her cheeks or the rainbows behind. "It's going to be an awfully rough road to hoe."

From Michael Thomas,"Man Gone Down"