Book Review

By Daniel Brown

Years elapse between novels by Alice McDermott, one of America’s most accomplished novelists.  It’s been seven years since her last offering, and her new novel, Someone, is one of those occasional perfect pieces of fiction that you read slowly, marvelling at the simplicity of her writing style, her easy narrative prose, her uncomplicated sentences, and the grace is her characters, which must reflect something similar in the writer.  The writer with whose prose and characters McDermott most compares is Anita Brookner, who seems, alas, to have retired from writing novels about eight years ago.  Both writers tend to the inner worlds of their characters, the seemingly small or routine life in which nothing, yet everything, happens. This kind of novel has long been associated with the finest of women novelists, and I think that this observation is both accurate and a huge compliment.  Men do tend to the epic, to the grand sweep of events, while women writers remember that the children must be fed, the groceries procured, the social life tended to., at least until the last few years.

Her title, Someone, refers to a life which could have been, and probably was, lived by thousands of women, in McDermott’s case Irish women who are first and second generation immigrants living in greater New York City.  Someone mostly takes place in a block of tenement flats (with big stoops, of course) in an Irish section of Brooklyn, mostly from the forties to the present.  Within the neighborhood, where everyone, of course is aware of everyone’s business, McDermott hones in on individual families, building the novel mainly around rites of passages, perhaps more losses than gains, in the ordinary lives of what may or may not be “ordinary” people.  Of course, McDermott is questioning that very idea, or assumption, seeing within individual families and individual character the greatest of strengths of character, of dignity, and of the daily acts of heroism.  It would take a woman of this quality, I think, to refute Heidegger’s belief that ‘everydayness is despair”.

Marie, the narrator of Someone, is eight years old when we meet her, a daddy’s girl, who waits for her father’s nightly return from work and will later in the evenings accompany him on his walk (to the speakeasy), while mother and brother Gabe, a boy destined for the priesthood, it seems, wait at home.  But as the father’s heatlh falls apart, and Gabe leaves the seminary after about a year, it’s the strengths and resilience of the women, with the help of neighborhood friends and rituals, which shore up these families, whose tragedies are equated often with the physical body (McDermott’s characters are nearly always Irish).

When Marie goes to work in the neighborhood funeral parlor, she is privy to the stories and gossip surrounding most neighborhood families at this last of family rites.  The funeral parlor’s owner’s mother lives on the top floor of this establishment, and the young, newly employed Marie is often invited to sit with the group of women, always including a couple of nuns, as they review the lives of the deceased and their immediate families, and this is where and how Marie learns Grace, where she comes to understand the editing of the story, so that the overall facts become clear, but where the nasty, the Falls (of women to sex and of men to alcohol) are made almost the stuff of myth, certainly of the kind of Charity once so important a part of the Catholic faith within the bosom of the Catholic family in the Catholic neighborhood. McDermott is also warning us of what has been lost since those families left those tenements and those stoops for the suburbs of New Jersey and Long Island.  McDermott’s eye for the details of the era, whether in dress, or in interior settings, product occasionally mentioned and the like, is so pitch perfect that she makes you inhale your breath , nearly gasp, for the versimilitude of her writing, for her understanding of character, for the ambivalences of life and love and loss.

Each generation continues to care for the one before it, while starting their own marriages and families, and tragedies –like Gabe’s departure from the seminary, and later, his nervous breakdown– are assimilated into the new generation.  There is always room for family, in McDermott’s world.

Read this book with the gentleness it seeks and brings to us, and think about the courage of these individual “someones”, and wonder whether we are an iota better off living as we do in nuclear families spread all over the country–world–without the safety nets of church, family and neighborhood.  Let the longing and the grace McDermott brings to us through her world seep in for a bit, and remember that there may have been something far superior just a generation or so away from where we are now–which must include this type of writing. It reminded me, often, of Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids, which also proposes a kind of transcendence of friendship, love, material irrelevance.

—-Daniel Brown

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *