- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 14, 2006

AFTER THIS

Alice McDermott

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $24, 279 pages

REVIEWED BY JOHN GREENYA

In an interview conducted after she had won the National Book Award for “Charming Billy,” her fourth novel, Alice McDermott (born and raised on Long Island but for years a resident of Bethesda) gave an interesting answer:

“Being Irish-American myself, Irish-American material is readily at hand to me. I know Irish-American people. I know what their homes look like. I know what they have for dinner. I know how they turn a phrase. And so since it was readily available, it saves me lots of research time, and I can spend the time instead trying to develop the things that I think are important in fiction, and that is the inner life of the characters.”

Nowhere else in her increasingly impressive body of fiction is that concentration on the inner life of her characters quite as true as it is in “After This,” a story of what happens to an Irish-American family in the latter half of the 20th century.

Writing a generational panorama, even one that spans “only” two to three generations, is not easy. But in this saga of George and Mary Keane’s Irish-Catholic family, Alice McDermott moves the narrative along so deftly and so economically that the passage of time seems perfectly natural.

Instead of racing her characters through the decades as if the years were gates on a slalom run and she was holding a stopwatch, Ms. McDermott uses longer incidents presented almost freeze-frame style to represent significant periods or events.

As a result, she never needs to tell us what year it is, and we don’t feel the need because we somehow know. For example, we attend the World’s Fair in New York on a miserably hot August evening, grousing as we inch along in the long line to see Michelangelo’s Pieta, but are never told the year is 1964. Very effective.

It’s a windy, April-is-the-cruelest-month kind of day when we meet Mary as she comes out of church on her lunch hour. “In church she had prayed for contentment. She was thirty, with no husband in sight. A good job, an aging father, a bachelor brother, a few nice friends. At least, she had asked — so humbly, so earnestly, so seriously — let me be content.” And then she runs into George, her brother’s friend, and to her surprise he asks her to dinner that night.

She accepts, and then goes in to Schrafft’s to have lunch, alone, at the counter. There she has a brief conversation with a young man who, unlike George, is “handsome enough.” But Mary already knows that something or someone romantic is not what her future holds. “She finished her sandwich, gave an extra quarter to the waitress, who also wore no wedding band, and headed back into the breach.” Not the street, mind you, but the breach, as in “once more into.”

So Mary, to use the parlance of the day, “settles” for George. They raise four children, Jacob, Michael, Annie and Clare, each one of whom becomes the focus of later sections of the book, especially when they approach and then reach adulthood. But the young Keanes are not destined to be like the high-achiever children in those insufferable Christmastime notes that always make your own kids sound like losers in comparison.

None of the Keane children does anything disastrous, but their lives don’t really turn out to be that much different, or better, than those of their parents. It’s almost as if Ms. McDermott were updating — channeling? — James T. Farrell and his Chicago Irish-Americans of the 1920s.

I say “almost” because unlike Studs Lonigan these characters endure, as did those of William Faulkner in an entirely different setting, a comparison of writers that is not, to my mind, a stretch. Alice McDermott’s characters all live. (The woman couldn’t write a cardboard cutout if she wanted to.) Jacob, a shy rather scared child, looks to become a shy rather scared adult. His younger brother, Michael, loses his early confidence and aggression as life scales back his ambitions. The girls make their own mistakes, and they too settle for less.

They all settle for less. There is also an equally well-drawn major character that is not a family member. Pauline works with Mary, and while they are not best friends, and perhaps not even, Mary sometimes thinks, friends at all, Pauline becomes part of Mary’s life and family. Many of us have had an “aunt” who is part of our real or extended family, but when they are depicted in fiction they seldom come to life on the page.

Pauline comes very definitely to life, and we see her importance to the family and the family’s importance to her. But there’s not a dab of sentimentality in the portrait, so well and carefully is she wrought. When Pauline is recuperating from an accident, the Keanes bring her to live with them. As kind as the act is, it doesn’t suddenly change Pauline’s scratchy personality.

“As the car pulled away, Pauline suddenly sat up, something brief and childlike in her eyes, a spark of fear or confusion. And then, haltingly, she sat back again. She turned to Mary. ‘That raincoat doesn’t suit you,’ she said. ‘You’re not good in black.’

“Mary only smiled.

“‘You’ve lost weight, too,’ Pauline said. It wasn’t a compliment.”

Please don’t let my description of the book cause you to think this is a depressing novel. It is anything but depressing. The details of this family’s life may seem excessively quotidian at times, but the cumulative effect is wonderfully convincing. This is a real family, these are real people, this is real life.

Tour de force is not too strong a word for what Ms. McDermott has accomplished. A first-rate novelist at the top of her game is something to behold, a thing of beauty and a joy forever as the poet said. And Alice McDermott is most definitely at the top of her game. “After This,” her fifth novel since her startling debut with “A Bigamist’s Daughter” in 1982, is so powerful, so controlled, and so evocative of real human emotion that is hard to think of a better novel that came out this year.

John Greenya is a Washington writer.

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