Ho hum. Another story about Catholics in Brooklyn. Another story about fathers wasting away from alcohol poisoning. Another novel by Alice McDermott I never want to put down.
Ms. McDermott doesn’t lure me in with heart-breaking dilemmas. Bombs do not explode. Guys in white hats don’t gun down bad guys and make the world safe for another day. There are no 3-D Technicolor bedroom scenes. No blonde kids dying from brain cancer. There is nothing particularly shocking or cataclysmic. No above the fold front page story.
Ms. McDermott illuminates the ordinary. The way the light falls on a wall, a six-year-old’s anticipation for her father to round the corner to home, the opalescence of a just-peeled potato, a brother saying his prayers in the next room.
Ms. McDermott bravely and boldly enters her characters’ worlds, without irony or any other weapon. She empathizes with them. She respects them. She loves them. She treats them with care. She understands how precious each one is, how easily they can be propelled toward happiness or ruin. She reveals their faults and weaknesses not to make them repellent, but to show their humanity. Even her villains can’t be despised.
She never tries to dazzle. She never tries to milk. She never abuses her readers’ trust by trying to suck them in with cliffhanger scenes. She never tries to get a rise out of them by exploiting catastrophes or cataloging colossal injustices.
Ms. McDermott shows us her characters from oblique angles. She uncovers the beauty in the unremarked-upon moments. She curates the ordinary and gets at the sublime.
But even in attempting to describe what Ms. McDermott does, I’m afraid I may be disturbing the delicate exquisiteness of Ms. McDermott’s art. Even those words—delicate exquisiteness—threaten to minimize what her books are about. They are just so much drapery obscuring the naked beauty of Ms. McDermott’s characters and the true and vivid world she creates. It is enough to remember her characters standing on the stoops of Brooklyn walkups, on yellowed linoleum floors. Their hands are immersed in dishwater, guiding tea towels into the hollows of wine glasses. They are watching the neighborhood boys play stickball, listening to the neighbor girl tell of the young man who lifted her up when she lost her balance in the subway. Their eyes are focused on the corner round which their father will soon appear, smelling of aftershave and pressed wool, his shoes shined to a high gloss, walking as steadily as he can after two shots of whiskey. They are fasting for Sunday morning Communion. They are laughing with the man who will father their children.
Every life matters to someone. Every life is heroic and glorious. We just have to observe, listen, and believe.
I don’t imagine writing exhausts Ms. McDermott at all.