By Alice McDermott
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
232 pages, $25
By Karen Brady
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
Alice McDermott hits two balls out of the park with her splendid new novel, “Someone.”
No stranger to sentiment, or to strong emotion, she not only masterfully mines the rich, interior life of an otherwise unremarkable woman but she also resurrects an entire Irish-American neighborhood of mid-20th century Brooklyn.
It is a neighborhood almost Dickensian per McDermott’s telling, her narrator only 7 years old at the book’s start, a child experiencing the “shallow chill” of her front stoop as she sits waiting for her father to come up from the subway:
“From the far corner, the neighborhood’s men and working women were coming home. Everyone wore hats. Everyone wore trim dark shoes, which was where my eyes fell when any of them said, ‘Hello, Marie,’ passing by. …
“The boys were playing stickball down the street. Always at this time of day. Some of them friends of Gabe, my brother, although he, young scholar, remained inside at his books. The younger boys were at the curb, watching the game, Walter Hartnett among them. He had his cap turned backward and the leg with the built-up shoe extended before him. Blind Bill Corrigan, who had been gassed in the war, was on the sidewalk, just behind Walter, sitting in the painted chair that his mother set out for him every morning when the weather was fine …”
All of these gently presented details will matter as “Someone” unfolds, a tale told – or better yet, “thought” – by Marie over 70 often-long years. She never considers herself much more than her own childhood description of “a shy child … comical looking, with a round flat face and black slits for eyes, thick glasses, black bangs, a straight and serious mouth – a little girl cartoon.”
It is as if those thick glasses keep Marie from seeing any further than what is right before her – and so her mind interprets the world via minutiae (some of which will only come clear as she ages). In “Someone,” we age as Marie ages, remembering the slight, the trifle, the small fact, the feel of the full gamut of Marie’s emotions, her ever-present melancholy, her occasional pleasure, her ready bent for guilt and shame.
McDermott is a maven when it comes to feelings, especially uncomfortable feelings – those unruly intangibles most writers don’t, or can’t, put into words. In Marie, she gives us a character who makes no apology for her raw responses to life in a 1950s neighborhood where there are shocking deaths (in childbirth, by accident, by suicide) and other “frightful” happenings (as in one Dora Ryan’s unknowingly marrying a man who turns out not to be one).
Marie recalls the neighborhood response to Dora’s plight as one of astonishment: “But there was delight in it, too. In what they were saying, a giddy shifting in their eyes, a mad pride of sorts, pride in how strange and powerful life might prove to be.”
Pegeen Chehab, the first name we encounter in “Someone,” belongs to a naïve and obviously clumsy young woman who lives next door to Marie and her family. Pegeen, Syrian on her father’s side, is called “amadan” (the Gaelic word for “fool”) by her mother and, on this day, Pegeen tells Marie of how she fell down on the subway, coming home from work, “and a very handsome man gave me his hand.”
“Someone always helps me up. … There’s always someone nice,” she says, confiding in Marie her plan to look for the handsome man again the next day and pretend to fall. It is a conversation that bodes ill for Pegeen, and it will haunt Marie the rest of her life.
So will the actions of Walter Hartnett, the neighborhood boy with the built-up shoe, who will later court Marie, winning her heart, only to take her one day for a fancy meal – to tell her he was marrying his wealthy boss’ daughter, Rita.
“It was simply that Rita was better looking, really,” Marie recalls. “No flaws that he could see. Not, he said, like you and me. ‘Blind you … gimpy me.’ ” Then, the final blow to Marie’s solar plexus: “You’ve been swell. I wanted to give you a nice lunch.”
What follows this stunning moment is one of those memorable afternoons McDermott aims at our own soft spots. Marie’s brother, Gabe, takes her for a long walk, telling her, “There’s a lot of cruelty in the world. … You’ll be lucky if this is your worst taste of it,” and Marie returns this volley with the book’s big question: “Who’s going to love me?”
“Someone,” Gabe tells her. “Someone will.”
Gabe is central to Marie’s small but all-encompassing story. He is her older and only sibling and, although he becomes a Catholic priest, it is at a time when, Marie’s mother says, “We’re not so enamored of the clergy as some.”
Given the era, and the reticence of many lace-curtain Irish, there is much left unsaid in Marie’s home – and little that a young woman of her station can aspire to. So it is more than fitting that when she takes a position with the local undertaker, Mr. Fagin, her job essentially is to comfort the bereaved.
“You are the consoling angel,” Mr. Fagin tells her. “The very sight of you gives comfort to a weary eye. … In Charles Dickens’s day and age … they always had child mourners. Professional child mourners. I got the idea from him. It’s in ‘Oliver Twist,’ the book that besmirches my good name.”
Mr. Fagin brings out McDermott’s quiet wit (and apparent fondness for Dickens), something she capitalizes on when her creation, Marie, marries a man named Tom – whose own boss is named Mr. Heep! Tom, although an indefatigable talker, is as solid as they come.
“I wished he could have been a simpler kind of man,” Marie says of Gabe, never guessing till nearly the end of “Someone” why her brother left the priesthood, a fact that leaves her bewildered and unmoored. She is more comfortable when she can tell her children “that good manners, gracious conversation, might be all we have, finally, to cosset and contain confusion.”
“Someone” – McDermott’s first novel in seven years – was long-listed for this year’s National Book Award and, although it didn’t make the short list, is a testament to nuance, subtlety and the often-overlooked intimacy and value of genuine small talk.
It is a book told in beautifully rendered vignettes that are not at all chronological but that present a microcosm of the world so powerful that, in McDermott’s incomparable hands, it becomes the stuff of life itself.
Karen Brady is a former News columnist.