On Mortality and a Marriage
by David E. Anderson
Not quite halfway into Alice McDermott's wonderful new novel AFTER THIS (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006), John Keane, abed with a slipped disk, contemplates in a mirror the reflection of a crucifix that hangs above the bed and behind his back -- a wedding gift from the priest who had married Keane and his wife, Mary. He sees "the tiny gold Christ curled against the thick cross. Thick in this particular case, he knew, because behind the tortured figure on the ivory cross there was a secret compartment that contained two candles and a vial of holy water, the accoutrements of Last Rites."
"It had not been difficult for them," McDermott writes, "bred-in-the-bones Catholics, Irish Catholics, even at the beginning of their lives together to imagine the final scene: the candles flickering on the bedside table, the holy water glistening on his forehead, the hushed air, the dim lights, the children kneeling at this bedside, and his wife, her hand over his, assuring him, assuring him, forgiving, in the last minutes left to them, assuring and forgiving. It was a scenario he no longer deemed likely. His brother had clutched his heart and hit the pavement on Thirty-fourth Street, already gone."
It is a patented McDermott moment -- the writing strong and supple, the incident textured and telling, a moment of meaning and loss that even in its matter-of-factness hints at transcendence and an assurance "that pain wasn't all, in the end. That something would trump the foolishness of body and bone, day after day." It is the sort of moment and the kind of writing that grasps what the Church calls Ordinary Time -- time ordered for the everyday living of a Christian life -- and that has marked McDermott as the most distinct and interesting voice of a new generation of Catholic novelists.
"Catholic novelist," like any label, should be used with caution. McDermott has called herself a "reluctant, resigned, occasionally exasperated but nevertheless practicing Catholic with no thought, or hope, of ever being otherwise," and certainly her novels, especially AFTER THIS, are suffused with the materiality -- the prayers and the rosaries, the incense and the gestures -- of popular Catholicism in the three decades following the end of World War II.
But she is not a Catholic or Christian novelist as that term is used these days in some, especially evangelical, religious circles, where novels are marketed and categorized as "Christian'' because their narrative style employs a theological Procrustean bed to ensure a "proper" uplifting ending. One is reminded of Flannery O'Connor's criticism of such a writer, "so entranced with his Christian state that he forgets his nature as a fiction writer." O'Connor added, "Poorly written novels -- no matter how pious and edifying the behavior of their characters -- are not good in themselves and are therefore not really edifying."
At the same time, the Catholicism of McDermott's novels represent a sharp break from her forerunners, from O'Connor, Graham Greene, and J.F. Powers. She writes without the existential "grotesque" of O'Connor, without the worldly but still religious "whiskey" priests of Greene or the corporate, spiritually empty clerics of Powers. Instead, McDermott's Catholicism is, in part, an environment. Her characters are like fish swimming in the sea of faith, and her theme, in part, is the drying and shrinking of that milieu as it is experienced by a working-class-becoming-middle-class Irish Catholic family.
AFTER THIS begins and ends at the edge of church. Its opening words, "Leaving the church," are immediately suggestive, and its final scene, a small, private wedding party gathered at a church door as a priest pronounces the book's final sentence, "It's a gift, then," is a perfectly realized coda, a statement if not of amazing than certainly of enduring grace.
In between, the novel is, first of all, a straightforward, beautifully realized and poignant portrait of a family -- John and Mary Keane and their four children. It is also a complex and compassionate meditation on change and its ineluctable costs. Finally and most movingly, it is about religious faith, its erosion and, equally important, its persistence in the face of change and loss. The story is set in the years following World War II, when the nation's economy was rapidly expanding, transforming the working class into the newly suburbanized middle class. As the 1950s turned into the 1960s and 1970s, another war -- Vietnam -- and the sexual revolution seemed to overwhelm families even in their newfound prosperity.
McDermott is an acute observer with a fine eye for detail, and she renders the fabric of these middle class Irish Catholic lives with a similar but more restrained and loving verbal craft than Protestant John Updike described the small-town Pennsylvania churchgoers of his early novels and short stories. For example, as Mary and her daughter Annie stand in line waiting to see Michelangelo's Pieta at the 1964 World's Fair, "They shuffled forward. In the boredom and the heat there were only the tender backs of necks to consider, arches of ears, puckered elbows, freckles, birthmarks, The variety of head shapes and hair colors. What wash-day mishap or expense spared or birthday gift or Simplicity pattern had led to those clothes on that body on this day. A missed belt loop. A plastic purse. A bleached beehive. A baggy pair of Bermuda shorts. A lip held over a protruding tooth. You had to pity anyone in long pants or black socks. Women in white gloves. Soldiers in uniform. You had to pity the man behind them for the hair on his arms, the woman's weight against him.''
McDermott's narrative is episodic and anecdotal, covering its 30 years in a spare 279 pages. It is held together by two primary themes. The first, almost unobtrusive, is the omnipresence of war, both real and imaginary. John Keane has been wounded in World War II; his first son, Jacob, is named after a fellow soldier killed in the war and Jacob, in turn, is given up to the war in Vietnam. In between, in two significant moments of the Keane children at play, war is their make-believe. Related to the war theme is the sexual revolution, which in differing ways sweeps up and scatters Jacob's three siblings, and McDermott has written some of the most sensitive passages in contemporary fiction on abortion and how it has been experienced in the Catholic community. "An Act of Contrition started up in her head," McDermott writes of a young woman as she rests after undergoing the procedure at a clinic. "'Oh my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee,' more a habit of mind than a plea for absolution. Because she could not balance any remorse against the dawning sense of relief. However terrible it might be, what she had done, it was over: gotten through, finished. However terrible it was, its immediate effect was that she could go back to school next week, her senior year.