Where the Heart Is
By Alice McDermott
Farrar Straus Giroux. 279 pp. $24
In one of her bracing essays about writing, Flannery O'Connor says, "There is no excuse for anyone to write fiction for public consumption unless he has been called to do so by the presence of a gift." It is no secret that Alice McDermott, winner of the 1998 National Book Award for Charming Billy, is a writer of many talents, but to read her new novel, After This , is to be reminded how rare her gifts are.
McDermott country is Long Island, 1940 to the present, and her people Irish Catholics: parents, spinster aunts, alcoholic relatives and always observant children who must grow beyond the safe-keeping of their parents. In After This , McDermott continues to pose her perennial questions: Does the lie that is faith, that is romance, that is poetry, make ordinary life better or worse? How best can a person survive disappointments, sorrows and also blessings day after day? How do we preserve our love for the dead when we can obtain only a limited amount of solace from telling stories about them?
The questions in After This are framed by the Keane family, whose six members are the major characters of the novel. In the first pages Mary and her future husband, John Keane, meet at the lunch counter at Schrafft's in the 1940s, and we then follow the couple and their children through several decades. The book is about what George Eliot called the great "home epic," everything that takes place in the family during the course of a lifetime: war, love, marriage, birth, more war and the occasional turn of fate that gives each person a particular story.
McDermott has always written relatively short novels. Again in After This there is no excess, no look-at-me pyrotechnics in her prose; with the mastery of a poet, she distills the life of the Keanes to its essence. Her method is familiar, going back and forth in time to reveal the story and the meaning bit by bit, as she peels back from the surface to the point of revelation. Early on, when a neighbor, Mr. Persichetti, appears in the yard, happening by just before Mary collapses in labor, McDermott skips years ahead to the most politically charged line in the book: Mr. Persichetti tells John Keane to shoot his son in the foot so he won't have to go to Vietnam. That line recurs, in its proper sequence, coming like a refrain, gathering power in the second telling.
McDermott is at the height of her powers here, charging her seemingly ordinary scenes with the possibility of danger, of terror or mystery and, on occasion, radiance. She does so with the lightest touch, with the silkiest humor, and yet at the same time she probes deeply into the moment. And so there is suspense when a professor plies an earnest student with whisky, when the Keane children play with toy soldiers on a windy dune, when a group of college boys argue about Halloween decorations in a bar, when a spinster rides a bus at night.
Several of McDermott's novels have a mythic quality, and this one achieves that mark most keenly. McDermott's narrators are often family members -- a daughter, a group of children or the neighbor child -- narrators who, although present, do not have much of a role in the story. The telling is what we know of the narrator, and so narrative and narrator seem to merge. After This is written in the third person, the familiar McDermott voice narrating at a further remove than usual, so that the novel, while rooted in the 1960s and '70s, has a timeless, once-upon-a-time feel.
The oldest Keane child, Jacob, a quiet, fragile boy, goes off to Vietnam, but McDermott does not devote a discrete section of the novel to his tragic experience. Rather, his story is embedded in details throughout the book: in the neighbor's experience in the war; in the story of Jacob's namesake, who died in the trenches in France; prefigured in his mother's viewing of Michelangelo's Pieta at the New York World's Fair, when Jacob is still a child. The war is there on the dune when the little boys play with toy soldiers and again when they climb in the jungle of a fallen tree in their yard. Jacob's time in Vietnam is not specifically told because it is a story, after all, that is as common as dust: a boy killed for nothing far from home. That void in the novel, and the fact that Jacob lives only in the grief of his family, make his loss all the more sorrowful.
McDermott has little need to discuss the war or the times because she is so good at depicting the political in personal terms, capturing the '60s in gesture and speech. One of the many affecting scenes takes place in a high school classroom: a nun tries to talk about abortion and women's duty to family to the girls, including Claire Keane, while "two or three were staring cross-eyed at the ends of their long hair." After a short but tense discussion about abortion, Sister Lucy reflects that at her students' age "she had craved piety, undaunted innocence, even naiveté. Now, worldliness was all they wanted. Sophistication." As the nun struggles to give the girls an understanding of what lies before them, they become wary, uncertain, dismissive. Sister Lucy likens the men who legislate abortion to Medea -- all of them murderers -- and she then pits the lot of them against the story of her noble mother, who single-handedly raised a brood of children and died tired. Her message is brutal, as is the girls' scorn for their teacher. Claire does not know it yet, but that discussion will resonate later in her life.
The tension of that chapter, of what has come before and the mystery of what comes after, is nothing less than thrilling. If McDermott were asked by a stranger, someone who doesn't read widely, "Oh, so you're a writer. Do you write romance or mystery?" she could honestly answer, "Thrillers, yes, thrillers are what I write."
In several scenes piano music in the background gives structure to the characters' lovemaking, their conversations, their rituals. At one point a priest, listening to a student playing, thinks, "There were the ordinary pianists who played, no doubt, as they had been taught to play . . . and then there was a kid like this, who played in a trance . . . not the engine for the instrument but a conduit for some music that was already there, that had always been there, in the air." The priest asks if the boy had taken a lot of lessons, or if he'd always been able to play.
" 'Both,' he said politely. 'A lot of lessons, but it seems I've always known how to play.' "
That surely is true of Alice McDermott, someone who must always have been listening, waiting for a way to use her exquisite sensory recall of childhood, waiting to craft everything she knows into another beautiful and stirring novel. All her books are touched with the grace of her generous intelligence, her sly wit and her compassion for our longings, our griefs and the revelations that come only in the briefest of glimmers. The opportunities for revelation are greater because we have books such as this one, because of McDermott's quiet and sublime gift. ·
Jane Hamilton's fifth novel, "When Madeline Was Young," will be published this month.