We Are Not Ourselves
Simon & Schuster
620 pages, $28
By Michael Langan
News Book Reviewer
The triumph of this multigenerational novel, “We Are Not Ourselves,” perhaps an instant if over-long classic, gives the lie to English writer Cyril Connolly’s remark, “There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hallway.”
Indeed. How about twin babies in a one-bedroom flat? This was the condition under which Matthew Thomas wrote this terrific new book.
In his acknowledgements, Thomas, a rising American writer born in the Bronx and raised in Queens, thanks his wife Joy for doing what Connolly considered impossible. His praise goes to her for his success: “…for her indispensable edits and remarkable forbearance in giving me time to write while we raised twin babies in a one-bedroom apartment.”
Actually, Thomas didn’t just fall off a radish truck and start to write. He’s a graduate of the University of Chicago, has an MA from Johns Hopkins and an MFA from the University of California, Irvine.
His first novel takes its title from King Lear who, you remember, lamented, “We are not ourselves/ When nature, being oppressed, commands the mind/ To suffer with the body”
The lynchpin of the long novel is Eileen Tumulty Leary, the matriarchal Irish mother. Her daughter, also Eileen, was born in Queens in 1941, and serves in the novel’s progression as “…wife, daughter, lover, nurse, caretaker, whiskey drinker, upwardly mobile dreamer, retrenched protector of values…”
The novel traverses the period 1951 to 1982, in the first of 101 chapters and an Epilogue, dated 2011.
Here’s how it begins.
“Instead of going to the priest, the men who gathered at Doherty’s Bar after work went to Eileen Tumulty’s father. Eileen was there to see it for herself, even though she was only in the fourth grade. When her father finished his delivery route, around 4:30, he picked her up at step dancing and walked her over to the bar…”
“… Men were always quieted down around her father. …The place was smoky and she was the only kid there, but she got to watch her father hold court….She didn’t have t strain to hear what they told him, because they felt no need t whisper…There was something clarifying in her father’s authority; it absolved other men of embarrassment.”
“It’s driving me nuts,” his friend Tom said, fumbling to speak. “I can’t sleep.”
“Out with it.”
I stepped out on Sheila.” Her father leaned in closer, his eyes pinning Tom to the barstool.
“How many times?”
Just the once.”
“Don’t lie to me.”
“The second time I was too nervous to bring it off.”
“That’s twice, then.”
After this admission, Eileen’s father gives an equivalent absolution and penance to Tom for his dalliance. He tells Tom never to commit adultery again and to “buy Sheila something nice.”
I include this passage, a longer quote than usual, because it gives a sharp sense of the immediacy and quality of Matthew Thomas’ writing. It shows how immigrant communities cope and adapt by retaining some of their old world ways in a new environment.
Thus, “We Are Not Ourselves” illustrates one family’s coming-to-grips in America with the immigration “problem” that’s been on the boil in our country for 200 years. B
ut make no mistake: the story of the Learys, an Irish-American family, is not all hearts and roses; it’s more like heartache, headache, Advil, and endurance.
Later, Eileen marries Ed Leary, a scientist, and they have a son, Connell.
Eileen’s aspirations are pinned to Ed, her ticket to a better life. Eileen is keenly aware of her own shortcomings. She knows that she isn’t the best mother in the world. “She worked a lot. She worked, period. Other mothers stayed home, baked cookies, talked to their kids all the time…”
Even her faith in Ed is disappointed. Eileen wants Ed to keep pushing upward. Ed’s response: “I’m turning fifty soon. I’m slowing down. I’ve earned a rest.”
“Nonsense,” Eileen says….”Her heart leapt a little.”
The reader can sense the disjunction in life goals between Eileen and Ed, with its attendant disappointment, beginning to show itself.
What’s on the line for the Learys resonates with all immigrants: the prospect of citizenship, a good job, and the desire for upward mobility. It is the power of love that allows one to hope for these aspirations that beckoned after World War II – and for that matter, even now.
These are rich draughts of memory drawn from the well of American life, and we do well to savor them.
That’s why “We Are Not Ourselves” is so important. I wish that a wonderful friend and mentor, Father Michael Tumulty C.M., formerly of Niagara University, could have read it.
Michael D. Langan, is a veteran book reviewer for the Buffalo News. In some ways his life reflects the American-Irish background of the Tumulty family. Langan has U.S. and Irish citizenship.