Oh good. There’s a new Alice McDermott. That was probably the thought in the heads of everyone who’s read her previous work, on announcement of her latest publication. If you haven’t tried McDermott yet, here’s your chance to be quietly, glowingly delighted, and to dive into a rich back catalogue.
In Someone, as in her other novels, McDermott is in sure, unruffled command of her time—midcentury 1900s—and her place—those enclaves on Long Island, in Brooklyn and in the suburbs to its east, that were the neighborhoods, the parishes, of her first-, second- and third-generation Irish American characters. It’s a little world, parochial and provincial even in its international urbanity, but full of incident, wonder, and emotion.
Novels are a kind of gossip; they introduce us to a group of people, convince us of our interest in their peculiar ways and circumstances, and then urge us along to find out what happens next, what they do, what they think, say, feel. In Someone the young heroine, Marie, spends time with her first employer’s mother and her cronies. The business is a funeral parlor; the mother’s residence is the top of the Brooklyn row house where the bodies are embalmed in the basement. As each funeral is prepared, the mortician’s mother and her friends gently dissect the life of the family involved: “If there was a good story attached to the life of the dead, whatever woman among them had it would be given the floor, and whatever part of the story was deemed, perhaps, too delicate for the old lady’s ears (or, more likely, mine) would be acted out with a series of gestures and nods and sudden silences that I quickly came to be able to interpret as readily as the rest… a finger held to the side of the nose indicated a deception, a pantomimed bottle raised to the mouth meant there was a problem with drink, the rubbing of the thumb and forefinger meant money problems—usually because someone, most likely a spouse, was cheap—eyebrows raised and words falling off into a long nod indicated sex…” There’s both titillation and reassurance, McDermott shows us, in this anecdotage. Talking everyone over is a way of keeping the herd together.
There’s no need to give a summary of the story here. It’s a woman’s life, from childhood to old age, focusing on the events that are ordinary and major: deaths, disappointments, fears, breakages, satisfactions. She starts out in brownstone Brooklyn and ends up in carport Long Island. There’s a certain modesty to McDermott’s way of showing us through her narrator’s life that serves to illuminate the occasions of great significance all the more. Her characters are quiet people who keep their aspirations mostly in check, inured to low expectations. When Marie is courted by a boy she’s known all her life on her block, she allows herself to assume her modest fantasies about marriage will come true, but we already know that in her world, even the most moderate moments of exhilaration rarely go unpunished. (A woman, pushing old-maidishness, whose wedding is keenly observed by the whole community, turns up attending mass again with her parents the following week, and the story is whispered around: on the wedding night, it turned out that the groom was a woman!) All kinds of things can go wrong. So when they don’t—when a passing acquaintance who stumbles into a private moment of crisis in the park reappears years later to become a suitor and loving husband—McDermott really calls out the slipperiness, the randomness, the grace, of how life happens.
She writes about such ordinary things, but they are the things that make up the incidences of all our lives, and deserve to be looked at as closely, carefully, lovingly, cleverly, as war and peace deserve. I mention this because much as I’d prefer not to, I’m always reminded, when I read a writer like McDermott, of how male critics often sideline female writers by dismissing their subject matter as too small, too domestic. So in case you’re one of those readers who thinks that a story in which nobody gets too far away from a kitchen sink is too prosaic to be taken at the top tier of seriousness, I’m urging you to let that go. In fact I’d love to put this book into the hands of everybody who thinks they would never remotely read McDermott.
So, in summary: rejoice, because there’s a new novel by Alice McDermott, called Someone, and it’s very very good.