In 'World Of Tomorrow,' A Novelist Found Echoes Of 1939, Today

Sep 3, 2017
Originally published on September 3, 2017 9:34 am

In his debut novel, The World of Tomorrow, Brendan Mathews portrays America as a land of possibility and redemption. "I wanted to write a book that was full of immigrants and dreamers and strivers," he says. "People who come to America or to New York specifically in pursuit of something — they all want something better, something different.

His novel, he explains, explores what the cost of those dreams might be. It's a sprawling story of three Irish brothers and their adventures in America on the cusp of World War II. Over the course of over 500 pages, readers meet a disgraced heiress to a mining fortune, a couple of up-and-coming jazz musicians in Harlem, a Jewish refugee artist from Czechoslovakia, shady members of the IRA-linked underworld and many others inhabiting both low and high society in New York.

Mathews talks about his own Irish heritage, why he set the story in 1939, and the significance of "the world of tomorrow."


Interview Highlights

On the book's trajectory

It's spread out over a week and it's the unexpected arrival of two brothers from Ireland — one an escaped convict and one a seminary drop out. And they end up in the home of their [third] brother who's a jazz musician in New York City in 1939. And over the course of the week that follows, it describes their collisions and run-ins with other musicians, with a wealthy family of heiresses, and with a former IRA member and mob enforcer who is on the tail of the escapee brother who has left Ireland with a small fortune which he has "liberated" — in his view — from an IRA safe house right before he left for the states.

On what drew him to this time period

I grew up in a large Irish Catholic family. My grandfather was an immigrant to the U.S. — he came over in 1929. And my family is full of storytellers; every time we get together there's lots to be told about the family's life in America and even the cousins back in Ireland.

But the period before that really was never discussed. Ireland goes through ... a war of independence and then immediately a civil war. And so I wanted to trace through some of that legacy of revolution, of political violence. I wanted to think about when a revolution becomes something else, and when the support of a cause like that morphs into something maybe a little more dangerous.

On the main character, Francis, who pretends to be a Scottish lord

Francis, he's escaped, and he suddenly finds himself in this life that he'd always dreamed of having. He was sort of on the fringes of high society in Dublin — he was a smuggler who provided luxury goods to the upper crust. And with all this money he's decided the best way for him to pass himself off as what he isn't is to go through what he calls "the first class plan." He's going to act as first class as he knows how, pass himself off as a lord, and figures nobody will ask any questions. And it works for a long time for him. He's on this fancy ocean liner, and they end up at the Plaza Hotel in New York. ... He's this very charming, roguish figure who keeps raising the stakes and everything keeps working out for him until about midway through the book when things start to take a turn.

On the character of Tom Cronin

In Ireland was he was a soldier — He was part of this revolution and so he would see himself as a soldier. But then, as the cause changes ... as he comes to the U.S. and starts working for this mobster who's sort of connected to the IRA in other ways, he really can't take on the mantle of soldier any longer ... he really is a soldier or a hit man. And he struggles with that ... the violence he carries with him all the time, when does it feel to him justified and when is it just raw violence?

He's tried to put all that in his past. He's tried to make this new life for himself, but he finds himself dragged back ... for sort of one last job that he has to carry out, he feels, because his family's safety is in question.

One of the things I was really interested in for the book was thinking about the past and how easy it is to shed that. Whether second chances are possible, whether redemption is possible — which is something that Cronin desperately hopes is the case.

On why the book is set in 1939, right before World War II

It was just such a fascinating year. There are all these hinge moments in history, but 1939 really is one of those years where you can say that the world that existed in 1939 would never exist again. The world that comes out of the post-War era becomes so fundamentally different than the world that existed before it.

But then at the same time, the more I looked into it, I kept seeing all these echoes from '39 that tied into now. America in a seemingly economic slump ... a refugee crisis overseas that the United States was trying really hard not to pay attention to ... a rising tide of fascism and support for it, both overseas and even in parts of the U.S. But also people who were just trying to get by — people who had dreams, people who wanted a world for themselves that was a little bit better, people who were still striving and trying to make something better.

On the origin of the title The World of Tomorrow

When this book is set, the 1939 World's Fair has just kicked off. And it promises this beautiful, brilliant world of highways and skyscraper cities and orchards held under glass domes. ... There's this beautiful, brilliant world that's right around the corner, and people in New York and the U.S. really want to see that world come to be, and there's this growing awareness that before they get to that world, there's a real price to be paid. That the war is right there in between the world that they know and the world that they want.

Peter Breslow and Barrie Hardymon produced and edited the audio of this interview. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

If you're looking to settle in for a long, meaty read as the days get shorter, the new novel "The World Of Tomorrow" is the sprawling story of three Irish brothers and their adventures in an America on the cusp of World War II. And it clocks in at over 500 pages. Along the way, we meet a disgraced heiress to a mining fortune, a couple of up-and-coming jazz musicians in Harlem, a Jewish refugee artist from Czechoslovakia and shady members of the IRA-linked underworld and many others inhabiting both low and high society in New York. This is Brendan Matthews's debut novel, and he joins us now from New England Public Radio in Springfield, Mass. Good morning.

BRENDAN MATTHEWS: Good morning.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So this tale takes place over a short time. But you pack a lot in. I want you to give us the plot, and I'm going to time you 30 seconds or less. Go (laughter).

MATTHEWS: OK. Actually, it's spread out over a week. And it's the unexpected arrival of two brothers from Ireland, one an escaped convict and one a seminary dropout. And they end up in the home of their brother, who's a jazz musician in New York City in 1939. And over the course of the week that follows, it describes their collisions and run-ins with other musicians, with a wealthy family of heiresses and with an IRA - former IRA member and mob enforcer who is on the tail of the escapee brother, who has left Ireland with a small fortune that he has liberated, in his view, from an from an IRA safe house right before he left for the States.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. So much there - it's such a great sort of swashbuckling adventure. As you mentioned, though, the story centers around these three Irish brothers and their links to the IRA. This is a fascinating bit of history. What drew you to that storyline?

MATTHEWS: Well, I grew up in a large Irish Catholic family. My grandfather was an immigrant to the U.S. He came over in 1929. And my family is full of storytellers. Every time we get together, there's lots to be told about the family's life in America and even the cousins back in Ireland. But the period before that, really, was never discussed. Ireland goes through a civil war - a war of independence and then immediately a civil war. And so I wanted to trace through some of that legacy of revolution, of political violence. You know, I wanted to think about when a revolution becomes something else and when the support of a cause like that morphs into something maybe a little more dangerous.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Let's talk about these three brothers...

MATTHEWS: Sure.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...The central characters in this book, specifically Francis. He's sort of the main character. And we meet him, really, in his full regalia, pretending to be a Scottish lord aboard a very fancy boat. What's going on there?

MATTHEWS: Well, Francis is - he's escaped, and he's suddenly found himself in this life that he'd always dreamed of having. He was sort of on the fringes of high society in Dublin. He was a smuggler who provided luxury goods to the upper crust. And with all this money, he's decided the best way for him to pass himself off as what he isn't and is to go through what he calls the first-class plan. He's going to act as first class as he knows how, pass himself off as a lord and figures no one will ask any questions. And it works for a long time for him. He's on this fancy ocean liner. And they end up at the Plaza Hotel in New York. And Francis is - I mean, he's this very charming, roguish figure who keeps raising the stakes. And everything keeps working out for him until about maybe midway through the book. And things start to take a turn for him.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. He's sort of like the lovable scoundrel, if you will, you know, one of these characters in literature who takes advantage of the situations as they're presented.

MATTHEWS: Yeah. Every Irish family has at least one of those.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter). One of the most interesting characters is a man called Tom Cronin. As you mentioned, he's a former hitman for the IRA, but he's left all that behind. He's living in the countryside with a wife and kids. And he's reluctantly dragged back into his old ways.

MATTHEWS: Yeah. I mean, he's - and that's one of the things I think is interesting that I wanted to explore in the book. I mean, what he really was in Ireland is he was a soldier. He was part of this revolution. And so he would see himself as a soldier. But then as the cause changes, the cause he fights for, he comes to the U.S. and ends up working for this mobster who's sort of connected the IRA in other ways. He really can't take on the mantle of soldier any longer. And he really is an enforcer, a hitman. And he struggles with that, with - when is the violence that he carries with him all the time - when does it feel to him justified? And when is it just raw violence?

And he's tried to put all that in his past. He's tried to make this new life for himself. But he finds himself dragged back for a sort of one last job that he has to carry out, he feels, because his family's safety is in question. So one of the things I was really interested in for the book was thinking about the past and how easy it is to shed that - whether second chances are possible, whether redemption is possible, which is something that Cronin desperately hopes is the case.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. I was about to say in your book, America is portrayed as sort of a land of possibility, of redemption, of reinvention. All these characters are sort of shedding themselves and becoming something else.

MATTHEWS: Yeah. I wanted to write a book that was full of immigrants and dreamers and strivers, people who come to America or to New York specifically in pursuit of something. They all want something better, something different. And so the book kind of asks what the cost of those dreams might be.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So all these lives intersect, obviously - all these different lives. Why 1939? Why set it right before World War II.

MATTHEWS: The more I looked into it, it was just such a fascinating year. I mean, there are all these hinged moments in history. But 1939, really, is one of those years where you can say that the world that existed in 1939 would never exist again. The world that comes out of the post-war era is - becomes so fundamentally different than the world that existed before it. But then at the same time, the more I looked into it, I kept seeing all these echoes from '39 that tied into now, you know, America in a seemingly endless economic slump and a refugee crisis overseas that the United States was trying really hard not to pay attention to, not to get involved in, a rising tide of fascism and support for it both overseas and even in parts of the U.S. but also people who were just trying to get by, you know, people who had dreams, people who wanted a world for themselves that was a little bit better, people who were still striving and trying to make something better.

And that's where the title comes from, "The World Of Tomorrow," because when this book is set, the 1939 World's Fair has just kicked off. And it promises this beautiful, brilliant world of highways and skyscraper cities and orchards held under glass domes. And it's right around the corner. There's this beautiful, brilliant world that's right around the corner. And people in New York and in the U.S. really want to see that world come to be. And there's this growing awareness that before they get to that world, there's a real price to be paid - that the war is right there in between the world they know and the world that they want.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Brendan Matthews's novel is "The World Of Tomorrow." Thank you very much.

MATTHEWS: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.