Review: Crashing Through, by Robert Kurson


Crashing Through: The Extraordinary True Story of the Man Who Dared to See, by Robert Kurson. New York: Random House, 2008. 320 pp. $16 (paperback).

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On a sunny spring morning in 1957, three-year-old Mike May and his older sister decided to make mud pies. After finding a glass jar in the family’s garage, Mike took it to a cement horse trough nearby and plunged it underwater to wash away the hard, dried powder inside.

Soon after, the powder—calcium carbide—reacted with the water to produce the explosive gas acetylene. When Mike’s mother, Ori Jean, rushed into the backyard upon hearing a loud bang, she found him whimpering on the ground, drenched in blood, with shards of glass all around.

Ori Jean called for an ambulance and then followed it to the nearby hospital. In the emergency room, doctors swarmed around Mike. “He had lost massive amounts of blood from his face, neck, arms, stomach, everywhere. Critical veins in his wrists had been slashed” (p. 19). The doctors told Ori Jean that he was going to die.

But Mike was not dead yet, and his doctors kept working on him. They sent him to specialists in El Paso by helicopter, trailed—on the ground—by his mother, driving as fast as she could. When she reached the specialists, they told Ori Jean to expect the worst and say good-bye to her son, whom they pulled into the operating room.

Five hours later, Ori Jean learned that it took five hundred stitches to quilt Mike together, but that the doctors had done the seemingly impossible. Although he was blind, Mike was still alive—which, to his mother, was all that mattered. Robert Kurson tells what happened next in Crashing Through: The Extraordinary True Story of the Man Who Dared to See, a book that follows Mike and his many adventures to the present day.

Kurson relays how Ori Jean did not prevent Mike from investigating the world, which he found fascinating even though this meant constantly crashing into obstacles. On Mike’s childhood, Kurson tells us:

The neighborhood children had no idea what to make of a blind kid. Diane [his sister] told them, “He’s really good at stuff,” but they still picked him last for their teams. He swung at baseballs and missed wildly. He ran into trees instead of second base. He fell down all the time.

But he could also boot a kickball to the clouds and quickly find kids in games of hide-and-seek. He wasn’t afraid of blood. Before long, the children didn’t much notice when Mike crashed his skateboard or jumped into the bushes with his pogo stick. He was playing and they were playing. . . .

Soon enough Mike decided to ride a bicycle. Just the idea of it—to be able to move so swiftly and independently—thrilled him. He borrowed Diane’s and began to pedal. The bike traced an ampersand on the street and then toppled onto him. Mike tried again. He fell again. He crashed for two more days, seasoning the street with bits of skin as Ori Jean told him, “You’re getting there.”

At school, things were just the same. Mike took tetherballs to the face and dodgeballs to the groin. He bloodied his nose, cracked toes, and broke fingers. While running to first base in kickball, he stepped on top of the ball, fell backward, and bashed his head on the pavement. He was unconscious for twenty minutes and rushed to the hospital. When he returned to school the next week, he played again. (pp. 24–25)

Such an attitude toward life is remarkable even among kids who can see. But Kurson does not dwell on Mike’s childhood for long. He takes the reader with Mike as he learns to get around by listening to echoes, builds an eighty-foot tower, rides horses through the wilderness, goes to university, travels to Ghana, joins the CIA, breaks a world record in skiing, starts up companies, romances beautiful women, finally marries one, and with her raises two much-loved sons.

Over the course of this history, Kurson enables readers to understand what might at first seem unthinkable: after being blind for more than four decades, Mike did not particularly want to see. In fact, when a doctor told him that stem cell technology offered the possibility of seeing again, all Mike could think to say was, “That’s interesting” (p. 8).

Throughout Crashing Through, drawing from hundreds of hours of interviews with his subject, Kurson shares Mike’s thought process as he debated whether to undergo the surgery. The cons of the operation were many, and they were significant.

“[T]here are the health risks, the fifty percent chance that the surgery won’t work, the chance [that the vision might] be snatched from me without warning, the uncertain quality of the vision itself, the risk to my light perception, the fact that I don’t know anyone who’s been through this, the strain on Sendero [a technology company he was starting up], the potential pressure on our marriage, the questions about who I am and who I’ve conceived myself to be all these years, not to mention the fact that life is already great without it . . .” (p. 119)

The list of pros was much smaller. In fact, it consisted of only a single item: Mike’s curiosity. But that, in Mike’s words, seemed “to outweigh the entire mountain of reasons not to do it” (p. 120). As he explained to his two sons the next afternoon:

“All my life, whenever something seemed interesting to me, I went out and tried it. Sometimes I got bloody, as you guys know from my stories, and sometimes I ended up on big adventures. But no matter what happened, I was always happy I tried. Trying means that I knew what things were like. Like when I crashed Aunt Diane’s bike. I didn’t want to sit around my whole life wondering what it was like to ride. That would have been worse than crashing, don’t you think?” (p. 120)

To that, of course, his sons responded, “Yeah!”—a sentiment with which readers at this point in the book will likely empathize, and which prepares them for the glorious description of Mike’s transformation that follows.

Kurson is at his best in the book in this sequence. He captures how Mike looked when first asked if he could see anything: “[His] face erupted into a smile”; and he notes Mike’s first words in response to that question, “Holy smoke! I sure can!” These words, Kurson continues, “made [his wife] Jennifer’s heart pound, and her throat clench and she whispered to herself, ‘Oh, my God’” (p. 127).

Kurson next takes the reader with Mike out of the doctor’s office, where he’s amazed at every tiny thing, including the design of the carpet and the fact that people in the office were ignoring it. “How could a person just sit there when such a carpet was happening?” (p. 133). Kurson captures the emotional intensity as Mike makes his way outside the hospital and then home, saying:

Every time [he] saw something new he faced a wonderful crisis: whether to keep looking or to move on to the next thrilling sight. Despite his excitement, he still didn’t quite have a handle on what he was feeling. As in [his doctor’s] office, he knew that if he diverted his attention to the joy and pleasure he sensed were underneath he would lose his awareness of the visual, and more than anything he did not want to lose his awareness of that. (p. 135)

All this continues for page after wonderful, action-packed page until Mike has confirmed the beauty of his wife, reveled in the new powers that vision has given him, laid eyes once again on his dear mother, Ori Jean, played catch with his sons, and, finally, thrilled but exhausted, succumbed to sleep.

If Crashing Through stopped at this point, it would already be worth reading, sharing with friends, and then rereading. But it does not stop there; it gets better, and it does so, like much good fiction, by getting worse.

Although Mike’s eyesight was near perfect in certain respects, he could not see certain things—at least not like other people. For example, Mike saw things in motion or attributes of things, such as their color, as well as anyone could. But he could not make out depths, nor distinguish faces—not even those of his two sons—nor readily grasp what a thing was if he wasn’t expecting to see it. In fact, Kurson shows how Mike would often see such things only after he touched them.

Mike explained to his doctor what seeing in this limited way was like for him: “It seems like I have to process every little thing consciously to understand what I’m seeing,” he said (p. 182). “[F]or me, trying to see feels like trying to speak a foreign language” (p. 183).

As he details Mike’s new adventure—learning to see—Kurson explains the science behind Mike’s inability to see like everyone else. He notes, for example, the studies confirming that “knowledge and vision are highly related” and that people apply their knowledge of the world “instantaneously, automatically, and unconsciously on the visual data streaming in from the eyes” (pp. 234, 230).

This is what Mike could not do. He either lacked that knowledge and would have to gain it, as a young child does, or worse, lacked the ability to gain it—the neurons having been put to use elsewhere—and would have to continue struggling to see as he was.

The last option was what Mike’s doctor thought most likely—that no matter how hard Mike tried, he would never see “fluently, the way normal people do,” and it would “always be incredibly hard work” (p. 265). To Mike, this was extremely discouraging. And, although he was happy he “made the journey into new vision” and about seeing “what this vision stuff was all about,” the next week, lying in bed, he “could not think of a reason to keep taking those pills”—the ones that aided his ability to see but increased his risk of getting cancer (p. 267).

You will have to read Crashing Through to know how Mike ultimately resolves this dilemma. But I challenge anyone to read it and not come away ready to tackle life, to crash through any obstacles, to be—in an already famous phrase—like Mike.

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