Michael Thomas is a writer and educator whose first book, Man Gone Down, catapulted him into the ranks of the nation's most prominent novelists. Called by Donna Seaman in Booklist "a rhapsodic and piercing post-9/11 lament over aggression, greed, and racism, and a ravishing blues for the soul's unending loneliness," Man Gone Down was named one of the Ten Best Books of 2007 by The New York Times.
Michael Thomas was born on August 21, 1967, in Boston, Massachusetts, the youngest of three children born to David Milton Thomas, a sales executive and onetime philosophy major, and Thelma Louise Allen Thomas. In a 2007 interview with David Mehegan in the Boston Globe, Thomas recalled his father's habit of reading to him from a large and varied library. "He read to me quite a bit, things I was far too young to understand," Thomas said. "That was our bond." Books would prove a refuge for Thomas amid difficulties in his parents' marriage and the racial unrest that plagued Boston in the early 1970s. When violence broke out in 1974 over the city's decision to integrate its public schools by busing African-American students to predominately white neighborhoods, Thomas's parents removed him from public school and enrolled him at Buckingham Browne & Nichols, a well-known private school in nearby Cambridge. Living in Allston, a blue-collar Boston neighborhood, and commuting to private school exposed the young boy to stark contrasts in power, privilege, and opportunity. "One day I'd be horseback riding," Thomas recalled to Mehegan in the Globe, "and the next it would be breaking windows." The tensions Thomas felt throughout his childhood—between his parents, between the white and African-American communities, and between privilege and poverty—are reflected throughout his writing.
Thomas would remain at Buckingham Browne & Nichols until 1978, when, following his parents' divorce, his mother moved with the children to the affluent, predominately white suburb of Newton, where he returned to public schools and experienced subtle but pernicious forms of racism. Particularly galling to the well-read Thomas was a school administrator's decision to place him in a remedial-reading program.
After high school in Newton, he attended Connecticut College for short periods, dropping out twice. While he never received a degree from Connecticut, it proved a formative influence in at least one respect, for it was there that he met his wife Michaele, with whom he has three children. After leaving Connecticut for the second time, Thomas moved with Michaele to Brooklyn, where he worked in a variety of fields, including carpentry and restaurant management. He also began attending classes at Hunter College, finishing his undergraduate degree there and returning later to teach.
The English classes Thomas took at Hunter renewed his interest in writing, a project he had pursued off and on since childhood. He soon enrolled in, and completed, a master's-degree program in creative writing at Warren Wilson College, a small, highly regarded school just outside Asheville, North Carolina. Throughout this period, most of Thomas' work consisted of poems and short stories. At the suggestion of a friend, however, he began a novel. Man Gone Down, far longer (428 pages) than most contemporary novels, took about a year and a half to complete.
There are a number of similarities between Thomas and the protagonist in Man Gone Down. Both are Boston-born African-American writers living in Brooklyn; both are married to white women and have children. As Kaiama L. Glover wrote in an influential front-page piece in the Sunday book review section of the New York Times, "Thomas seems to have fully embraced the ‘write what you know’ ethos." It would be incorrect, however, to conflate author and character, or to assume a deeper correspondence between them. Man Gone Down is not the story of Michael Thomas, but of a man immersed in personal, financial, and familial crisis. Deep in debt and estranged from his wife and children, the unnamed protagonist/narrator is living in the bedroom of a friend's six year-old child. As he races to find more than $12,000 with which to rent an apartment and pay his children's private-school tuition, he struggles with the legacy of his father's alcoholism, his mother's physical abuse, his own inertia, and a society that has largely replaced overt racial hatred with something almost as destructive: patronizing kindness. In Glover's words, the narrator's "tormented psyche subtly reveals … how kindness can be poison to those on whom it is imposed."
Aided by Glover's positive, high-profile review, Thomas' book enjoyed strong sales throughout the country and was a frequent selection of book groups. Not all reviewers were equally enthusiastic. Leora Bersohn in Library Journal, for example, found that Man Gone Down "often suffers from writing-workshop laziness." In general, however, critics found much to admire, with many noting, in particular, Thomas's ability to generate hope, even optimism, out of a story that is at times relentlessly bleak. As a reviewer in Publishers Weekly wrote, "For all of the introspection and occasional indulgence in self-pity, the narrator retains a note of hard-won optimism, and Thomas resolutely steers him clear of sentimentality." At the end of 2007 the New York Times honored Man Gone Down with an award rarely given to debut novels, naming it one of the Ten Best Books for that year. Another major newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, named it a Notable Book of 2007, and Book Sense, a publication of the American Booksellers Association, included it on its spring/summer 2008 list of recommended titles for book groups. In 2008 it also began to appear on the syllabi of college-level literature classes nationwide.
Thomas has taught in the English department of Hunter College, a division of the City University of New York, since 2002, when he was hired as an adjunct lecturer. Five years later, in the fall of 2007, he was named an assistant professor. According to the school's course listings for the fall 2008 semester, he is scheduled to teach classes in essay writing, the philosophical novel, and strategies in fiction writing. In the summer of 2008 he was reportedly at work on a new book of nonfiction.
At a Glance …
Born on August 21, 1967, in Boston, MA; son of David Milton (a sales executive) and Thelma Louise Allen Thomas; married Michaele Wylde, 1993; children: three. Education: Hunter College, BA; Warren Wilson College, MFA; attended Connecticut College.
Career: Hunter College, adjunct lecturer, 2002-07, assistant professor of English, 2007—.
Awards: Man Gone Down named one of Ten Best Books of 2007 by the New York Times, named a Notable Book of 2007 by the San Francisco Chronicle, and named a Spring/Summer 2008 Book Sense Best Reading Group title.
Addresses: Publisher—c/o Publicity Department, Grove/Atlantic Inc., 841 Broadway, 4th Floor, New York, NY 10003.
Man Gone Down, Grove/Atlantic, 2007.
Thomas, Michael, Man Gone Down, Grove/Atlantic, 2007.
Booklist, November 15, 2006.
Boston Globe, March 3, 2007.
Library Journal, October 15, 2006.
New York Times, February 4, 2007.
Publishers Weekly, October 9, 2006.
Man Gone Down, Grove/Atlantic Inc., http://www.groveatlantic.com/grove/bin/wc.dll?groveproc˜genauth˜5177˜5229˜DESC (accessed June 4, 2008).
—R. Anthony Kugler
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