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Ulysses's Sister

Not much happens in Alice McDermott's fiction. We usually have a woman -- her age narrated fluidly, though not chronologically, à la Toni Morrison -- at weddings, wakes, and conversing at Sunday afternoon tables with coffee and danish. Character unspools slowly, its outlines often unfamiliar to the narrator herself, whether because circumstances are murky, insight is limited, or both. But as a social historian, McDermott's prose is astonishing in its clarity, capturing working-class New York with the cinematic clarity of John Patrick Shanley or Martin Scorsese. Take this opening passage from McDermott's new novel, Someone:


Pegeen Chebab walked up from the subway in the evening light. Her good spring coat was powder blue; her shoes were black and covered the insteps of her long feet. Her hat was beige with something dark along the crown, a brown feather or two. There was a certain asymmetry to her shoulders. She had a loping, hunchbacked walk. She had, always, a bit of black hair along her cheek, straggling to her shoulder, her bun coming undone.

Poor Pegeen. The product of what used to be called a mixed marriage, in this case an Irish woman with a Lebanese man, she will not be long for this world, her dishevelment a foreshadows a coming fall. Here as in so all McDermott novels, death hovers, an inescapable, and sometimes longed for, presence.

For over a quarter of a century now, McDermott has staked out her turf as the chronicler of the New York Irish in the twentieth century. Her books circle obsessively around the children and grandchildren of the children of Eire as they disperse across the five boroughs and (especially) Long Island, dreams of upward mobility incrementally carrying them on tides of affluence even as their memories and their Catholicism holds them fast. This sense of place crystallizes in the language, clothing, foodways, and interior decorations of these people -- from the aspiring lace-curtain Irish to their shanty skeptics -- and achieves its apotheosis in mid-century, gradually disintegrating as their suburban children assimilate, move away, and regard their begetters as incomprehensible if not laughable. This is a world I happen to know well, and reading a McDermott novel always seems to conjure up childhood memories I barely realized I had.

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Someone tells the story of Marie Commeford, a thoroughly ordinary woman born who is born in Brooklyn in the 1920s and comes of age during World War II, when she works as a kind of professional mourner at a local funeral parlor. She marries a veteran and spends the remainder of the American Century in Queens, the mother of four. Marie has poor eyesight, but her sensory acuity (particularly in her sense of smell, a McDermott specialty) is extraordinary.

In an important sense however, Someone is a sibling story, focusing on the relationship Marie has with her older brother, Gabe, the apple of his parents' eyes who enters -- but soon leaves -- the priesthood. Nowadays, we're almost surprised to encounter a priest who is not obviously or likely gay, but in Marie's day such realities were unspeakable. Yet McDermott shows the attitudes of the working-class Irish were perhaps not quite as benighted as is sometimes supposed. To call them homophobic is not only anachronistic but incomplete. Fear, compassion and brutality mingle, expressed through a language of gesture more often spoken with hands than words.

In a funny way, McDermott's fiction is a bit like that of Alan Furst, he of the noirish spy novels set in Europe in the early years of World War II. Both writers are saturated in atmosphere, and their books tend to run together in your memory after you've read them. Yet both are extraordinary at evoking a particular time and place in ways that historians can only envy. In decades come, such writers will be be among the most important in helping us understand what it was really like to be alive in those middle decades of the twentieth century.

jim cullen

Jim Cullen
American History Now

Friday, 25 October 2013