A family grows on Long Island
Quiet storytelling evokes midcentury suburbia as Alice McDermott traces the lives of the Keane family.
Now that the desperation of suburban lives has become an excuse for camp in popular culture, here comes National Book Award winner Alice McDermott to restore some much-needed dignity to the dwellers of subdivisions.
McDermott returns to the same time and place as her award-winning "Charming Billy": New York's Long Island during the middle decades of the 20th century. Her characters, once again, are members of an Irish Catholic family. But "Billy," which started with the title character's funeral and went back in time to explore the lie that may have fed his alcoholism, was easily recognizable as a novel. After This seems more like a collection of short stories about one family. The book is a series of interlocking vignettes that skip years and change points of view as it traces the history of John and Mary Keane and their children from the late 1940s through the 1970s.
Mary was almost resigned to spinsterhood when she met John Keane, a former soldier who was injured in World War II. The two have four children, two boys and two girls, and create a quietly enduring marriage. (Quiet is the operative word for McDermott's storytelling here; she underplays even death to haunting effect.)
The oldest boy is named Jacob, after a young Jewish soldier John met during World War II. Jacob's mild nature frightens his father, as does younger son Michael's delight in besting his older brother at, well, everything. "His love for his children bore down on his heart with the weight of three heavy stones," John thinks on a picnic at the sand dunes the day before Clare, their youngest, is born at home with the help of a neighbor. He's hoping for another boy; but either way, he knows the child will be "another stone."
The helpful neighbor, Mr. Persichetti, and his children figure in several vignettes, as does Pauline, a friend whom Mary dutifully tolerates. "What was the good, as Sister Clare at school used to say, in loving only the lovable?" (In fact, only little Clare seems able to muster genuine affection for Pauline.)
After Clare's birth, the novel speeds up relentlessly, hopscotching through the years as the sexual revolution and the Vietnam War swoop in. Jacob is sent to Vietnam; while Annie, the elder daughter, and Michael head for college; and Clare seems destined to be the home body. McDermott weaves questions of faith and religious life throughout the novel, as when Mr. Persichetti is delivering Mary's baby on the Keane couch. "He thought of God then ... as somewhat cavalier in his creations. Not indifferent – Jesus was proof of that, as was Mr. Persichetti himself ... only swift and bustling and unheeding, like nature itself."
McDermott can pare her history more ruthlessly than Readers Digest, condensing a character's life into one paragraph before shunting him or her offstage. "After the rowdy wedding in Yonkers that June, there would be his annual backyard barbecues.... There would be his three kids, one with problems, his tacky affair with another teacher which almost cost him everything and then didn't. There'd be the quick cancer at 42 and the heft of his own coffin as they got him down the steps of his church. The party later, in his backyard once again, where they decided that if they weren't the middle children born at midcentury to middle-class parents and sent from middling, mid-island high schools to mediocre colleges ... they were close enough."
The "This Is Your Life in 100 Words or Less" effect can be disconcerting. But it reminded me of a reading Flannery O'Connor once held, where she gave away the ending of "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" so that her audience wouldn't be wondering if everyone was going to die all the way through the story. It's as if McDermott is helping readers pay attention to the details that matter.
Among those: Mary and Annie visiting Michelangelo's "Pietà" at the World Fair, children playing with toy soldiers on sand dunes, a tree that falls during a storm, and college students bickering about Halloween decorations. McDermott manages to imbue all of these with meaning, so that a dinner a professor gives for her students takes on as many emotional shadings as a teenager trying to raise money for an abortion.
What you won't find is the humor and charisma with which "Charming Billy" delighted family and friends. The Keanes aren't goodlooking high-achievers, despite Michael's high opinion of himself. Mary is a lousy housekeeper who believes that it's good for kids to get lost in the shuffle. Now in his 50s, John makes a whopping $30,000 a year, and is terrified that he won't live to see his youngest girl marry. They're just decent, middle-class folks, trying to get by on faith.
• Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.