Tag Archives: Alice McDermott

Book Review: The Ninth Hour

This book review originally appeared in The Washington Independent Review of Books on 5 October 2017.

Novelists are often drawn back to the same time and place again and again in their work, to an emotional geography that formed them as people and as writers. For Alice McDermott, that place is among the working-class Catholics of 1950s-era Brooklyn and Long Island. Her work consistently involves the quietest stories focused on lives of little note.

And yet.

In the Catholic canon, the Liturgy of the Hours, such as vespers and lauds, marks the time of day for certain prayers; none, the ninth hour of the day, 3 p.m., is the time for mid-afternoon prayers. It is around that time on a cold and rainy February day that a young man sends his pregnant wife out to do the marketing so that he can close up their tiny apartment, kill the pilot light, and lie down in the bedroom for a permanent nap.

We see the aftermath of the explosion and fire through the eyes of neighborhood nun Sister St. Savior. Despite her desperate need for a toilet after a day spent begging at the Woolworth’s for the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor, the nun walks into the house rather than pass by, and immediately takes matters into her capable if arthritic hands.

Thus begins the story of Annie, the new widow, her daughter, Sally (christened St. Savior), the nuns of the convent of the Little Nursing Sisters, and the various characters that inhabit their work-weary neighborhood.

As unassuming a writer as McDermott is, she sometimes surprises readers with her willingness to break rules. In her 1998 National Book Award winner, Charming Billy, she got away with using a first-person narrator for a closely told story, the bulk of which took place before the narrator was even born.

Rebel McDermott is here again, this story narrated by an even more captivating “we,” signifying the children of Sally and her husband, Patrick Tierney, who grew up together. The Tierney children — how many? boys? girls? — tell this story in intimate detail, describing their grandfather’s last solitary moments, Sister St. Savior’s internal considerations of God, and countless other hidden moments. It’s a delicious little twist of narrative expectations that McDermott pulls off effortlessly.

The story unspools gradually, alluding to certain incidents and episodes, returning to them, adding flavor and depth at each pass. Sally and Patrick’s children recount the stories they grew up hearing. That their grandmothers, Annie and Liz, were fast friends from before their parents were born means the stories of the two families bleed into each other to become one.

Many of the stories involve the residents of the convent of the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor — primarily Sisters Lucy, Illuminata, and Jeanne — women who understand what needs to be done and simply do it. They are by necessity practical and tough, and have few saintly illusions about life. Their devotion to God is primarily manifest in the unceasing labor they pour into easing the suffering of others.

If Lucy is brusque and unsmiling while Jeanne’s eyes twinkle perpetually on the brink of laughter, both women prove themselves equal to any task, starting with making Annie’s apartment habitable again and finding the money to employ her to help Illuminata with the convent’s mending and washing. They also see things clearly, including the developments between Annie and the convent’s milkman, Mr. Costello.

Sally grows up in the warm embrace of Annie, the various sensibilities of the convent nuns, and the messy, tumultuous household of Liz and Michael Tierney and their six children. Sally and Patrick knew each other from infancy, and in Patrick’s stories they were destined for each other.

One of Patrick’s favorite stories involves Red Whelan, Aunt Rose, and the lasting enmity between his father and grandfather, for whom young Patrick is named. The Tierneys paid Red Whelan to take the elder Patrick’s place in battle during the Civil War.

When Red came back missing an arm, a leg, and an ear, the Tierneys bestowed on him permanent residence in their third-floor bedroom, and their young daughter Rose to be his lifetime caregiver. So much given to ensure the future of a son on whom all hopes rested. As Aunt Rose later said, “Weighed down all his life by the burden of gratitude.”

Hence the bitter and permanent break between father and son when young Michael, carelessly throwing away a generation of advancement that came at such a cost, insisted on marrying a mere immigrant servant girl — Liz.

The final insult, in the end, is that Red survives the old man. “I wonder if it irked my father, to see Red Whelan outlive him,” Michael tells Patrick. “I wonder if he thought, as he lay dying, that perhaps for three hundred dollars more Red Whelan would take his place again.”

As told to the children, the story is an object lesson in being sure the thing you think you want is worth the price you have to pay to get it. It’s the same object lesson that Sally learns when she thinks she wants to become a nun, and yet again when she thinks she wants to spend her mornings with miserable, self-pitying Mrs. Costello.

Sister Jeanne tells the children stories, too, in her old age but still with a twinkle in her eye, discussing with them the ideas of God’s sense of fair play and the joys of Heaven, something she is certain will be denied to her. How sweet, stalwart Jeanne could permanently be out of God’s grace is the central mystery of this story, while the reader’s central question, for her and several other characters, is, “Was it worth the price?”

McDermott, the master of understated storytelling, leaves us to ponder the answer.

When Your Favorite Author Breaks Your Heart

This blog posting originally appeared on Late Last Night Books on 20 July 2016.

I’m a frequent reviewer for both the daily Washington Independent Review of Books and the quarterly Historical Novels Review of the Historical Novel Society. As an author and avid reader, I find that reviewing offers a host of benefits for me. Not only do I end up reading books outside my normal genre preferences, which is good for me as a writer, reviewing also introduces me to wonderful debut authors about whom I get to spread the good word. Completely selfishly, it’s also pretty cool to have, say, Viking or FSG quote me in a tweet to their vast legions of followers.

But the cherry on top of the pie is the chance to review my favorite authors’ latest books. I didn’t really consider this perq until just such an opportunity popped up late last year. My A-List of favorite authors is literal — all their first names happen to start with A: Annie Proulx, Alice McDermott, Ann Patchett, and Anthony Marra. When Marra’s second book, a collection of interrelated stories called The Tsar of Love and Techno came out in the fall, I groveled to be the one to review it for WIRoB (attractive? hardly). Setting aside starry-eyed fandom long enough to read with a critical eye, I was not at all disappointed. It was easily equal to his awards-strewn debut, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. My review didn’t quite bestow the cachet of the glowing New York Times review the book also received, but I was glad to join the chorus of huzzahs.

I’ve just discovered the painful reality that it doesn’t always work out that way. When I learned that Annie Proulx had a new novel out after 14 years, I jockeyed to get the review assignment from HNS. While perhaps I hadn’t known her writing in the earliest days when she was E.A. Proulx, I certainly got there while she was still E. Annie. She is the first writer I discovered as an adult who made me yearn to have such command of voice, tone, and language; she’s been on my list the longest. To try to explain what it is I love about Proulx’s writing, I’ll quote from my own review, which will be out in August  (the major downside of a quarterly): “She creates characters and situations and then sits back with an ironic, god-like detachment to observe what happens next. The sense of dread draws her readers in, like witnesses to a car accident who can’t bear to look away.”

The next sentence in the review is: “Unfortunately, that voice is almost completely absent from Barkskins . . . ” I sensed trouble when I realized the novel was 700 pages long. (As an aside, HNS reviews so many books that reviews are capped at 300 words. Now, I’m no math major, but even I can grasp that the ratio of effort [700 pages] to output [300 words] is pretty lopsided.) After my initial enthusiasm gave way to confusion, then concern, and finally despair, I kept shouting in my head, “Where are you, Annie? Where are you?” There was another little voice weeping in the corner, too, uttering the eternal lament of the betrayed, “How could you do this to me?” I felt bereft having to write an unfavorable review of my favorite author’s work. It doesn’t matter that all the big reviews have already been out for ages—some of which were glowing—and that a brief review from an unknown reviewer will make no material difference. It still hurt.

It also made me consider more closely something else I’ve noticed as a reviewer: Chalk it up to the new realities of publishing, perhaps, but it used to be that debut novelists typically “showed promise”, and it took a few books for them to really find their voice. I’ve been amazed at how many new novelists now show up as fully accomplished authors, confident and in command. Unfortunately, it also seems that as writers get “bigger”—larger sales, name recognition, what passes for celebrity—people stop editing them. Later works have a tendency to be more bloated, more self-indulgent, less coherent.

It’s not even a matter of length. I’ll compare Barkskins with another novel I read for the HNS August review. Stephen O’Connor’s debut novel, Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings, weighs in at a girthy 600 pages, but what he does in those pages! (I’ll note here that those combined 1,300 pages were just two of nine books I reviewed for the upcoming issue. I use this as a convenient excuse for the sad progress of my own book.) O’Connor fully imagines the decades-long intimate relationship between Jefferson and Hemings, a relationship that left no documented evidence beyond DNA. He also examines a host of the moral, ethical, and philosophical issues surrounding the relationship using wildly different perspectives and scenarios that shatter the bounds of the conventional narrative, and, not incidentally, skewer the Jeffersonian myth. Not all of it worked—I think his editor could have cut a few of the scenarios to good effect—but I was enthralled through 600 pages.

What to do when your favorite author breaks your heart? That’s easy: find some new favorites. But you should also go back to the beginning, to remind yourself of what you fell in love with in the first place. Here I come, Postcards.