As the novel opens, it is the summer of 1976. Salvo is 66 years old and has decided he can never retire. Already famous thanks to his days in an American circus, he has made a living in recent times performing solo walks of extraordinary difficulty. And so he finds himself attempting to accomplish the most difficult feat of his career: to walk a wire strung between the twin towers of the World Trade Center, 1350 feet from the ground.
Transylvania in 1919 is a place of poverty and persecution for the Rom people. Salvo follows his father to a village church, where the senior Ursari -- the only man who volunteers for the task -- is to climb the steeple to replace a large iron crucifix that had been removed for safe-keeping during the war. He restores the cross, but it is not properly attached and as they are leaving, it falls, killing a priest. When the villagers exact their revenge, Salvo’s parents are killed and he is separated from his brother and sister. Thus begins nearly a lifetime of being forced to flee from suspicion and misfortune that takes the reader from Europe to the US to British Columbia’s Fraser Valley and back to Manhattan.
Ascension combines powerful storytelling -- including stories of the Romany people, poverty-stricken but resourceful, and rich in legend -- with great surprise and originality; Steven Galloway makes it clear why he is one of the hottest young writers in Canada today.
Excerpt from Ascension
“Once a newspaper man had asked him what it felt like to walk high above the crowd, with death looming beneath you and success a long way off on the other platform. Salvo had told the man that it was like being a bird, an eagle, but he knew that wasn’t true at all. He was a man, nothing more. Still, he was a man who dared do things other men watched and admired and were jealous of. He walked for these people as much as for anyone. But today he was walking only for himself. That was the difference with these solo walks. When he was among them, he was one of them, but here he is timeless, one man on a wire far above it all, in a separate place. He was not free, but he was as free as he would ever be.”
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There is a steady wind, and it blows cold on Salvo Ursari’s face and hands but does not deter him. He dips a hand in the pouch he wears at his waist, pinching out a clump of baby powder that he rubs onto both of his hands. Beyond the practical purpose of preventing the slippage of the seventy-pound pole he carries for balance, the powder has a distinctive odour that reminds Salvo of the past, of walks done half a lifetime ago, of his twin daughters when they had been tiny, shrieking infants, of his wife after bathing.
Salvo smiles as one such moment floods into his consciousness. It is nearly forty years earlier, his daughters barely two years old, and his wife has just put them down for the night. Salvo is lying on his back, trying to stretch out a hamstring he has needlessly overexerted. Through a wince of pain he sees his wife’s legs as she glides by him, pale, ghostly apparitions, and his eyes follow her as she moves across the room and sits on the ledge of the window. The streetlight outside illuminates her from behind, makes her glow, and Salvo is reminded how breathtakingly beautiful his wife can be.
A gust of wind brings him back to reality. Now is not the time, he tells himself. You are not a young man and you had better keep your mind on the task at hand.
At sixty-six, Salvo has been told he’s out of his mind to attempt a skywalk between the twin towers of Manhattan’s World Trade Center. Salvo partly agrees with this assessment, but it makes no difference. Of course he’s afraid, of course he knows the danger -- few have suffered more than he as a result of walks gone bad -- but that is of no consequence. It is his fear that lets him know he’s sane; the day he’s not afraid is the day he won’t go out on the wire. He knows he can do this walk.
Salvo is standing nearly fourteen hundred feet above solid ground. It is the highest walk Salvo has ever done, but height is unimportant; you’re just as dead if you fall from forty feet as you are from fourteen hundred. Distance-wise, Salvo has walked two and even three times as far, which is tricky because the longer the wire, the greater the danger that it will snap. A very long wire will sag in the middle, and there are few things more difficult than walking the downhill slope of a wire. At least Salvo has the comfort of this being a solo walk. He alone is responsible for the outcome of today’s endeavour.
For his efforts Salvo will receive a sum of twenty thousand dollars, but the promoter’s insurance company has steadfastly refused to extend coverage to Salvo himself; the policy only covers damage caused should Salvo fall onto someone or something below.
The area beneath the wire has been cleared. From where Salvo stands with his toes curled over the edge of the building, the mounted crowd-control policemen are barely visible, the crowd itself nothing more than a dusty smear. He dislikes that the audience is such a distant entity. Without the immediacy of the audience, without their energy to feed on, the wire can be a lonely place. The only consolation Salvo has is that he has performed so many times he instinctively knows how the crowd will react, can picture the people far below as clearly as if they were fifty feet away.
Salvo receives the signal to begin. He takes a deep breath, collecting himself, and offers up a silent prayer. He’s seen enough on the wire over the years to know that skill and luck are not enough to get across. To survive he needs God on his side. At the very least he requires Him to be a benign presence; the last thing he wants is to have God against him.
Hoping that he’ll have only earthly challenges to deal with, Salvo picks up his balancing pole. The wind moving across the wire creates a sound not unlike that of the highest string on a violin. As he steps onto the wire, the weight of his body momentarily silences it, before it resumes its singing. Each step Salvo takes interrupts this one-note song, but between steps it always begins again. It is as if this wire is trying to play me a death march, he thinks, and each step I take forces it to start over. As long as I keep taking steps, it can’t complete its song, and everything will be okay.
The wire digs into his feet through the ballet-style slippers he wears, and he can feel the wind go right through the cotton of his jumpsuit. Salvo doesn’t wear conventional, tight-fitting costumes. He doesn’t mind them when performing under a roof, but on a walk like this one he prefers slightly looser clothing, the folds of his snow-white jumpsuit acting like antennae, a way to feel the wind’s strength and direction.
For a man his age, indeed even for a man half his age, Salvo is in exceptional shape. He is thin and lithe and undeniably strong, his slight form belying a muscularity that is rare for his body type. His hair has turned from the darkest brown to a peppery silver with the utmost dignity, even if his hairline has slipped back a little. Thick, leathery lips lie on top of a set of teeth that, despite a minimal regimen of oral hygiene, are almost unnaturally bright. His face, still handsome after being weathered and beaten by sixty-six years of hard living, is quietly inviting, trustworthy. A person would, if they were to meet him on the street, be inclined to like him. But the most striking thing about Salvo is his eyes. Set deep in their sockets and veiled behind thick, dark eyebrows, they are the colour of an emerald forest, capable of being cold and piercing one moment, calm and soothing the next. They can speak kindness or anger more loudly than words. Whenever people think about Salvo, they think first of his eyes.
The sky is grey, gloomy, not at all the sort of weather that is good for a Fourth of July, let alone a wire walk, but Salvo would rather have this kind of weather than the bright sun and sweltering heat the forecasters had predicted. Hot air rising off the streets can create nasty updrafts, which are considerably more dangerous than a slight breeze. Still, he would not want to be up here in a thunderstorm.