By Alice McDermott
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Life has the capacity, even if we don't seek thrills and constant activity, to be hectic and stressful. Personal, professional and societal/cultural concerns can all add up to a cacophony of discord that can crowd out the accomplishments, the positive interactions, the planning for something better.
Which is partly why fiction is so important today. It can put the reader in another world, in another viewpoint, in another situation. Often, just that ability to step out of the ongoing noise and think about something else can be restful. Sometimes it can even be invigorating.
Reading Alice McDermott is downright peaceful. Charming Billy, a National Book Award winner, is the work of a powerful observer of the small moments in life that matter. Her latest novel, Someone, is not a wild rollercoaster ride of a read. Thankfully.
Marie goes back and forth in time to recount vignettes of her family from her childhood to old age. As a child in between the two world wars in an Irish-American neighborhood of Brooklyn, Marie has bad eyesight, a beloved father who drinks, a mother who appears stern but is filled with love and a brother destined for the priesthood. She has a lifelong friend, Gerty, whose mother is expecting yet another child in middle age, and talks to a neighborhood teenager who laughs at her own clumsiness.
The teenager, Pegeen, was born of parents with a lovely story -- a woman from Ireland and a man from Syria managed to find themselves in an American bakery and married. She's not a beautiful girl, she has a bit of the hunchback to her and always seems to be coming undone. She's always leaving things behind and calls herself "amadan" -- a fool.
In the midst of her scraps, Pegeen, says, she's not alone:
"But there's always someone nice," she said, her voice suddenly gone singsong. "Someone always helps me up."
After a first-love heartbreak, Marie and her older brother, Gabe, now a failed priest, walk for miles in the summer heat:
"Who will love me?" I said. The brim of his hat cast his eyes in shadow. Behind him, the park teemed with strangers. "Someone," he told me. "Someone will."
And that's all this book is about -- someone. Marie lives a quiet life that makes no waves. She is there for others in small, quiet ways just as others are there for her. Other characters take on importance because they are noted, because they are always where they belong, such as blind Bill Corrigan. A young WWI veteran, his mother irons his white shirts and escorts him down to the street every day. They walk arm in arm as a couple would. Bill sits in a chair on the street and settles streetball arguments as a referee whose authority is not questioned.
Bill does not perform other actions that make him the nexus of anything, yet he is one of the vital threads that hold the community and the story together.
This is the quiet brilliance of McDermott's work. The characters weave in and out of the narrative as their lives go on. What was noted as it happened earlier is recalled in passing later, and the world remains connected. McDermott also is masterful at making the small moments count, because they are such a large part of life, as when young Marie is slipped an extra sugar cube by her father and she puts it in her evening tea:
I listened (to her brother reciting poetry), my eye on the lovely, tea-soaked dregs of sugar at the bottom of the china cup. I imagined it was the very same sweet, silver sand mentioned in the poem, the desert sand, sand of Syria and Mount Lebanon. I watched with one eye squinted as the lovely stuff moved slowly across the ivory light, advanced sluggishly toward my tongue, and then, when it was too slow, the tip of my finger.
Whenever "the sand of Syria" is mentioned again in the novel, I go back to that dining room table and the girl Marie was, because it says so much about the woman she became.
And while he is not the focus, or the sole focus, of the novel, her brother Gabe is, like Marie, a character who in other hands would have a far more dramatic arc with huge episodes and long-winded speeches. McDermott's restraint in showing how life turned out for Gabe makes his journey all the more realistic and worthy of consideration.
All the characters in McDermott's fiction have such lives. And so do people we know -- the ones who won't be memorialized in New York Times obits, who won't be the subject of biographies, unless we make them ourselves. Which is what one family does for a son killed in World War II:
They sat down and wrote a letter to the President instead, describing Redmond andd what had been lost. Fifty-two pages of it. Pretty remarkable, Florence said, considering Redmond was only twenty-five.
Not remarkable at all, Florence, not remarkable at all. There should always be someone who knows.
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