Downing, Michael (Bernard) 1958-
DOWNING, Michael (Bernard) 1958-
PERSONAL: Born May 8, 1958, in Pittsfield, MA; son of John Frederick and Gertrude Nora (Martin) Downing. Education: Harvard University, B.A. (magna cum laude), 1980. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Roman Catholic.
ADDRESSES: Home—50 Follen St., No. 505, Cambridge, MA 02138. Office—Wheelock College, 200 Riverway, Boston, MA 02215-4176. E-mail—[email protected]
CAREER: Novelist, editor, and educator. Oceanus (periodical), Woods Hole, MA, senior editor, 1983-84; FMR (periodical), Milan, Italy, senior editor, 1984-86; Bentley College, Waltham, MA, instructor in English, 1987-88; Wheelock College, Boston, MA, instructor, 1988-91, assistant professor of humanities and director of writing program, 1992—.
MEMBER: PEN, Authors Guild, Authors League of America, Share Our Strength (Washington, DC; writers' committee).
AWARDS, HONORS: Harvard-Shrewsbury fellow in Shropshire, England, 1980-81; Perfect Agreement named a best book of 1997 by Newsday.
A Narrow Time, Vintage (New York, NY), 1987.
Mother of God, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1990.
Perfect Agreement, Counterpoint (Washington, DC), 1997.
Breakfast with Scot: A Novel, Counterpoint (Washington, DC), 1999.
The Last Shaker (play), produced at Triangle Theater, in Boston, MA, 1995.
Shoes Outside the Door: Desire, Devotion, and Excess at the San Francisco Zen Center, Counterpoint (Washington, DC), 2001.
Work represented in anthologies, including Louder than Words, Vintage (New York, NY), 1989. Contributor of stories, poems, essays, and reviews to periodicals, including America, Commonweal, Harvard, and Salopian.
SIDELIGHTS: Michael Downing's debut novel, 1987's A Narrow Time, is the first-person narrative of Anne Fossicker, a working Connecticut wife and mother of three children. Anne's daughter Sarah disappears from parochial school, and Anne's feelings of guilt about having a career are brought to the fore as she anxiously leads the search effort. It turns out that Sarah has been kidnapped by a novice nun who has a history of abuse. After the nun commits suicide, the daughter is found with her grandmother, who has kept the child's whereabouts a secret from the parents.
The book was hailed by Tom Nolan in the New York Times Book Review as a "remarkable novel" and by a Publishers Weekly reviewer as "impressive." The latter critic described the work as "told in an extraordinary voice" and as a "superior portrait of human suffering and pain." Reviewer Nolan commented that the author "renders his narrator's feelings and actions so skillfully that each sentence seems at once surprising and completely true." He concluded that the novel "has the emotional precision of the best fiction and the satisfying resolution of a detective story."
Downing's second novel, Mother of God, centers on the emotional troubles of Stephen Adamski and of his family, particularly his controlling mother, Sylvia. A young man, Stephen is arrested for vandalizing a synagogue after learning that his father is not his biological parent. A Publishers Weekly critic found the characters "neither likable nor inspiring," and the author's analysis of their motivations uninteresting.
In his third novel, Perfect Agreement, Downing again deals with religious concerns. The novel examines the life-crisis of thirty-six-year-old Mark Sternum, who has just been fired from his job as head of writing programs at a small college. His long-lost father shows up after a stint in a Shaker community and tells a complicated story about an old Shaker, Sister Celia. In the opinion of a Publishers Weekly reviewer, Sister Celia's story is "seamlessly woven in and out of the main plot," although perhaps too complexly resolved. The reviewer pointed out that chapters of the novel are marked with short lessons on the rules of English. Calling the book "graceful," the reviewer concluded that Perfect Agreement is "a novel of . . . compassion and wit" that "combines one man's tale of loss and acceptance, the lost rhythms of the Shaker world and the delights of the English language."
In 1999, Downing published his fourth novel, Breakfast with Scot, a critically-acclaimed tale about a sexually-confused 11-year-old, who is sent to live with two gay men after his mother dies. The story is narrated by Ed, who, along with his partner, Sam, agrees to care for Scot. But Scot is not a normal boy. He dresses like a girl and wears makeup, and many of his mannerisms are feminine. The story follows as Sam and Ed adjust to parenthood, with all its travails and pitfalls. "Having a child, I soon learned, is like having an open wound," Ed says in the story. "People ask you about it. They give you advice and secret remedies. Friends tell you to ignore it for a while and see if it doesn't heal itself. Everyone assures you that it won't kill you. And then they show you their scars." While Sam and Ed fret about Scot's safety at school and from neighborhood bullies, the two learn much about themselves. The book was hailed by several critics, including Nancy Pearl of Library Journal, who called it a "refreshingly off-beat take on gay parenting." J. E. Robinson, who reviewed the book for the Lambda Book Report, felt it was a "well-written, realistic novel." A contributor for Publishers Weekly called Downing's prose "melodious and lucid."
Downing got away from fiction with his next project, the nonfiction book Shoes Outside the Door: Desire, Devotion, and Excess at the San Francisco Zen Center. The book recalls the rise and fall of the San Francisco Zen Center and its former leader, Richard Baker. Downing discusses how Baker turned the center into a money-making empire in the 1970s and early 1980s. However, in 1983, a scandal known in Zen circles as "the Apocalypse" brought Baker down, when he used his influence and authority to have a sexual relationship with the wife of one of the center's biggest benefactors. In the years after the event took place, there was much speculation about what exactly happened. Downing wrote the book to find out. He spent three years interviewing some eighty people who were familiar with the events. One person who declined an interview, however, was Baker himself. Still, Downing achieved his goal of uncovering the details. Downing also lets readers know how the center has fared since the scandal.
Donna Seaman, who reviewed the book for Booklist, called the work "a fascinating, multifaceted chronicle," and "an invaluable portrait of the . . . American Buddhist movement." Several critics also lauded Downing's prose style. "Downing tells the story with a novelist's attention to character and detail," wrote a contributor for Publishers Weekly. Similarly, Kay Meredith of Library Journal felt the book had "a narrative style that flows quickly."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, October 1, 2001, p. 282.
Boston Review, December, 1987, p. 28.
Kirkus Reviews, September 15, 1987, p. 1338; March 15, 1990, p. 361.
Lambda Book Report, January, 2000, p. 23.
Library Journal, December, 2001, p. 212; October 1, 2001, p. 120.
New York Times Book Review, January 3, 1988, p. 18.
Publishers Weekly, October 23, 1987, p. 50; March 23, 1990, p. 64; October 13, 1997, p. 57; September 13, 1999, p. 57; October 15, 2001, p. 68.
San Francisco Chronicle, November 11, 2001, p. 3.
Counterpoint Press Web site,http://www.counterpointpress.com/ (May 29, 2002), "Interview with Michael Downing."
Salon.com,http://www.salon.com/ (May 29, 2002), Greg Bottoms's review of Breakfast with Scot.*