Tuesday, October 22, 2013


Alice McDermott is one of the greatest prose stylists of our era. Have I said that before? Probably. I wonder if she were writing about a more exotic ethnic group than Irish-American New Yorkers, who have been signature characters in novels for over half a century and if her stories were less subtle and more sensational if she wouldn't have won all the top awards by now (she did win The National Book Award for CHARMING BILLY in the late 1990s, but no Pulitzer yet or etc.).

SOMEONE, her latest novel, tells the story of a Brooklyn Irish-American woman growing up in The Depression and follows her into her old age. The settings of the chapters which jump around on the timeline of the narrator's life and the mannerisms she records, her own and her families and neighbors, are so precisely described any reader could find themselves identifying whether they're familiar to the reader or not.

I first noticed McDermott's writing for her early '90's book AT WEDDINGS AND WAKES, but it was the more recent CHILD OF MY HEART that solidified her literary stature for me. And now here's her latest, SOMEONE. The title evokes for me the great uses of that seemingly vague term that had made it so memorably not vague, as in the song and movie title "Someone to Watch Over Me."

I just picked a paragraph randomly, just opened the book and pointed, and here in these few sentences you can experience all the subtle craft of this great writer:

"We walked down the stairs. I felt a panic at each turning—what if his mother came through the door now, or now, what would she read on our faces? But he took his time. On the street—the air was lovely, a slight breeze had kicked up and it felt like bathwater against my skin—he put his arm around my waist as we walked. We passed the church. Had it only been this morning that he looked down at me with the sunlight across his face and asked, "What's wrong with your eye?"

It's like a mini-play, with suspense, foreshadowing, passion and surprise (perhaps comic). Only all those qualities are so subtle and rendered with such humility (but so realistically), that it almost seems like a joke, only by this point in the book we care about the narrator so it's no joke to us.

Anyway, it's late, I just wanted to alert anyone looking for a good fictional read, that this to my mind far outshines some other books about the Irish in Brooklyn for my taste (or should that be "for my sight" so as to not mix metaphors). Years ago I read at an Irish festival outside DC with Alice McDermott and was struck then by her own humility and a kind of restraint that I not only admired but wish I had.

I wished nothing but the best for her and her work then, and even more so now. After Alice Munro won the Nobel recently for her fiction, I thought hey, why not Alice McDermott next?


Anonymous said...

Bought the book on Monday. Looking forward to getting into it. What other BIC books were you thinking of?

Lally said...

BROOKLYN, for one. Though Toibin's novel is also well done, McDermott's is for me so much more satisfying both in terms of style and content. And the mother of them all (in terms of novels) A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN, which I still like as well, but again, McDermott's is at the pinnacle of any pile of Irish-American novels about Brooklyn (my old friend Hubert Selby Jr.'s LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN would top them all for me in terms of capturing a reality no one else ever got as well)...