The edge of sadness
Alice McDermott is at her best in a tale about the burdens and joys of a postwar middle-class family
By Alice McDermott
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 279 pp., $24
It takes a certain confidence to assume the whole world in a drop of water; it takes a mastery to capture it. From its opening sentence -- a woman leaving a church in midtown Manhattan, in post- World War II America -- Alice McDermott's exquisite sixth novel unfolds in unhurried splendor, its pace so exacting you can feel the sting of sand in a high city wind. That wind will matter, too, stirring up more than merely the smells and detritus of springtime New York. Our hopeful young protagonist, poised in a vibrant country full of soldiers come home, thinks of the scraps of paper that decorate the world's losses -- the flotsam that covers battlefields ``after all but the dead have fled."
The near-perfect cadence of that phrase, solemnly slipped into an ordinary street scene, is what has garnered McDermott such acclaim over the years as a writer of intricate interiors. ``After This" takes the signature elements of her finest work and translates them all into this elegiac novel, capturing not just the panoramic wash of three decades of a family's life, but the cast of emotion -- the singular prism of light -- that makes it human. Possessing a precision reminiscent of ``Housekeeping" or ``To the Lighthouse," the narrative voice is a counterbalance between the resonance of language and life's unshak able sadness.
McDermott's fertile territory has always been the Irish-American family in the Northeast, caught between faith in Catholicism and the tenets of decency and the rough-and-tumble inevitability of life's hard knocks. Mary, the woman on the church steps , will soon enough leave the safety of her brothers and father for another kind of shelter, with John Keane -- a handsome, enigmatic man home from the war with a limp and a vision for a better future. Keane will spend his working years at the phone company, but this is given short shrift in the novel; the specifics of work in McDermott's world -- the struggling middle class of Long Island -- are only lighting to the stage, which is the drama of human connection. Soon enough there are three children, then four -- the last, a daughter born when John is 51, old enough to recognize ``that sad tincture of mortality that mixes with the bright day." He loves his children and rightly feels this love as weight: hope shadowed by fear and expectation, the knowledge that his wishes for his family are mere talismans in the face of the future.
The two Keane boys are studies in contrast: Jacob, the eldest of the four, is an awkward, careful boy too worried about life to find much pleasure in it yet. His brother, Michael, is a reckless, slightly cruel kid who not only rolls with the punches, but initiates them -- whose very energy is a torment to Jacob. John Keane named his eldest in honor of a soldier who had died in a foxhole . The girls offer their own blend of joy and grief: Annie, whose love of literature helps her navigate the world, and Clare, the youngest, the only family member who can tolerate Mary's overbearing friend Pauline. Doughy and insufferably well intentioned, Pauline is the straight man for the Keanes' ordinary foibles -- a reminder of Christian charity on her best days and, on her worst, of how life might have turned out.
McDermott has imbued her novel with images that define the decades: the 1964 World's Fair in Queens, the nun-and-ruler tutelage of Catholic education, the bad yard art and split-level houses and root beer of an era that knew tragedy but not yet its defensive camouflage of irony. Her set pieces are equally piercing. A kind, muscle-bound neighbor comes to pregnant Mary's aid when her water breaks, then later murmurs to John the first mention of the war in Vietnam. ``Shoot him in the foot," he advises Keane about his sons, after his own boy has already returned. ``Break his legs before you let him go."
Such counsel is heretical in those early days of the war, all the more grievous from a man of such taciturn strength, and it stands as a counterpoint to the balms of the church : of the promise, as John thinks to himself, ``that something would trump the foolishness of body and bone, day after day." These corporal failings are at the heart of ``After This," their portents displayed with sterling restraint -- a fallen willow tree, the white-marble anguish of Michelangelo's ``Piet à ," a mark left by a spider on the palm of a boy's hand. Mary Keane, so filled with readiness in that opening scene -- flying down the church steps from noonday, mid town Mass, waiting for life to begin -- is eventually the personification of Michelangelo's Mary, serene and bowed forever, knowing that every breath taken can't help but declare its eventual absence.
McDermott has chosen to address the central sorrow of her story with a sidelong vision, like the slant of the sun in late afternoon; this decision was clearly a conscious one, and if it's puzzling to the reader it is also haunting. ``After This" is a formalistic novel, its story encompassing the decades of an unpopular war and a burgeoning women's movement, moments in history etched in the emotional landscapes of (as Michael thinks) ``the middle children born at mid-century to middle-class parents." But inside that simple uniformity -- that bland anonymity that defined a generation, its misspent hopes and bursts of joy and sorrow -- is a character study of profound dimension. There were and are untold millions like the Keane family, stepping lightly toward the future and weary with the present, clinging to ``their pretty faith" even when it fails to salve. Petitions and consolations are all over the place in ``After This "; wisely, the only promise of grace that McDermott dares to make is the beauty found in rendering it.
Gail Caldwell is chief book critic of the Globe. She can be reached at email@example.com.