Someone/Alice McDermott: Reflections on a Perfect Novel

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

I have had this galley of this most important book for several days. I hadn't read it for this simple reason: reading it once was the surest way I knew of never again being able to read it for the first time. This is an Alice McDermott book. This is an occasion.

Yesterday a friend called, asked what I was doing; I said "reading." She asked if there was really anything new that I could learn from books, having read and written about "thousands" in my life (I've no idea how many books I've actually read; I'm quoting now from a conversation). Oh, I said (a rushing oh). I learn every time. Good or bad, I read, I learn.

Reading Alice McDermott, I learn about time. I learn about how an entire life can be surged forward and reclined against. I learn about the power of those two or three knowing nods to the future, about the devastation of a quiet recoil, about the intimacy between a reader and the page when a character privately reassess the past. I learn about economy and also about largesse, but mostly, mostly, every time I read Alice McDermott, I am reminded of the great complexity of "simple lives," of the small heroics that make us human, of the heartaches we cannot defend against. I am reminded that there are writers among us who know. Not a single gimmick in an Alice McDermott book. Not a single nod to the commercial antics of our time. Walk down her Brooklyn street. Meet Marie. Watch her tumble toward love, grasp toward knowing, learn about comfort, give it, grow old. When you do this thing you will have opened your heart to the strangers among us.

You are expecting proof. It's on every single page. No sentence anything but perfect. No scene anything but seamless. No detail superfluous.

Here, for example, on an early page, we meet the blind umpire on Marie's Brooklyn street. An older Marie is remembering a younger Marie here, and somehow McDermott gives us the sense of both perspectives at once. But also here is not just a singularly interesting character and a quietly compelling scene. Here, in this paragraph, are the seeds for the devastation yet to come. Nothing superfluous, as I said.

Bill Corrigan wore a business suit and polished shoes, and although there was a glitch in the skin around his eyes, a scarred shine in the satiny folds of his eyelids, although he was brought to the kitchen chair every afternoon when the weather was fine by his mother, whose arm he held the way a bride holds the arm of a groom, it was to him that the boys in the street appealed whenever a dropped ball of an untimely tag sent both teams, howling and cawing, to his side of the street. They were there now: shouting into each other's face, throwing their caps on the ground, and begging Bill Corrigan to make the call. He raised one of his big, pale hands, and suddenly half the boys spun around, and the other half cheered. Walter Hartnett rocked backward in despair, raising his good foot in the air.

Very few people know what writing is in the way that Alice McDermott knows what writing is. But every reader should know her work.


Victoria Marie Lees said...

Great post, Beth. I need to seek out and read Alice's work. The passage you included in this post is truly wonderful. Your insight into Alice's writing style is truly helpful to aspiring writers. Thanks again.
~Victoria Marie Lees

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