Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Melancholy of Alice McDermott

Alice McDermott              Someone

I won't say that one has to be of an Irish Catholic lineage to appreciate Alice McDermott's fiction but, if you are, it will certainly enhance your reading experience! Of course I'm convinced that someone back in my genealogical past must have had a passionate affair with an Italian sea captain because I don't feel very Irish at all.

 Yet there's something about the characters in Ms. McDermott's novels that remind me so much of my upbringing - the large family of great aunts and grandmothers, Irish sisters - the Mooney girls they were known as - who were inseparable. They were also mysterious, full of family secrets and half-hidden foibles that we never fully understood as kids. They were fun-loving enough but I never felt a sense of joy in their homes. Priests were highly valued friends.

So when I met Marie, the seven year old narrator of Someone, Ms. McDermott's first novel in eight years, I felt an immediate kinship. Marie is a keen observer of her surroundings, sitting on the stoop of her Brooklyn brownstone waiting for her dad to rise up from the subway station and saunter down the street to scoop her up in his arms.

She thinks a lot about odors, his jacket will be smoky with a hint of the whiskey that he's quickly downed on the way home. Observations like this, for which McDermott is known and rewarded, give the reader the palpable sense of being within the action, or lack thereof.

Because, as she's been telling all the interviewers with whom she's made the rounds over the last couple of weeks, this is a book about nothing really, the quotidian events of a plain life. And yet, it's about everything really, birth and death and all that lies between. And it's the way Ms. McDermott conjures up the nuances of all those years in between that makes her such a master of her craft. Her description of Brooklyn street lights causing a chicklet pattern on the carpet is just one such "ah ha" moment. More powerful is her account of Marie giving birth to her first child and more bitter, her ability to write so convincingly of the senseless meanness of kids at play.

I don't want to run down the plot of this novel, as I said, it's just one ordinary family trying to do the best it can. It's Marie, her parents, her brother Gabe, her first lover, her husband, her children, her employer, a quite marvelous undertaker, Mr. Fagin. If this novel has an overall atmosphere of melancholy, well then, roll with it. That's just the Irish for you.

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