Book Reviews

Whitman a Constant Companion in 'Specimen Days'

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Alan Cheuse reviews Specimen Days, a book by Michael Cunningham. The title comes from Walt Whitman, and Whitman's voice is heard throughout the three novellas that comprise this book.


Michael Cunningham won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel "The Hours." His new novel is called "Specimen Days." Alan Cheuse has a review.

ALAN CHEUSE reporting:

The title comes from Walt Whitman, and Whitman's fingerprints--or I guess I should say his voice prints--are on almost every page of these three linked novellas. In the opening piece, there's a young factory worker in Cunningham's vividly depicted streets of 19th-century New York City who spouts Whitman like a Tourette's victim. He works at the same beautiful but menacing stamping machine that crushed the life out of his older brother, the lost brother whose voice he begins to hear calling to him from inside the machine.

In the book's second novella, "The Children's Crusade," young boys roam the New York streets, explosives strapped to their fragile bodies, reciting Whitman and blowing people up in the name of a better world. It's movie stuff, according to Cat, the tall black female detective who's trying to find the juvenile terrorists. And there's just enough of the feel of a suspense film wedded to Cunningham's lyrical prose to make all this work quite beautifully.

There's more out-and-out science-fiction movie stuff in the third and final novella, "Like Beauty." This one also begins in New York, about 150 years in the future. An odd couple, an android and an alien, a lizard woman who along with many of her kin has migrated to Earth, make a fragile pact and flee a degraded Manhattan, which has become a theme park for wealthy Asian tourists.

The freedom that novelist Cunningham demonstrates in these pages is something to behold. "Specimen Days" is an extraordinarily imagined book and, line by line, page by page, one of the most beautifully executed experiments of the decade.

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BLOCK: The book is "Specimen Days" by Michael Cunningham. Our reviewer, Alan Cheuse, teaches writing at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

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BLOCK: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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