At home with Jean McGarry is a heart-tugging place to be

August 07, 1994|By Merrill Leffler

Jean McGarry's fictions invite you into their rooms as though you were a welcome and sympathetic relation. This is to say that they don't try to entertain, but trust your willingness to listen.

These stories are not in the least postmodern. They trust language. They construct characters, they don't deconstruct them. They have a point of view, and are not fragmented. They try, in Joseph Conrad's words, to make us see. As in her two previous collections, the 12 stories of "Home at Last" have the feel of intense family memories.

Ms. McGarry, who teaches in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University, is compelled by the unsung people, the ones she has grown up with. They are Catholic, mostly from New England -- more specifically, Providence, R.I. Her themes are the shaping influences of the family and the everyday desperations that reveal some people to be quietly heroic and others to go quietly defeated. However, she rarely uses such abstractions -- her stories move by attentiveness, particularly to mundane and realistic detail.

Details such as these, revealing in such marvelous ways, in "Eagle Eyes," a story about the generational gulf between an aging mother and father who have come to California from the East to visit their son, Mikey, daughter-in-law and grandchild:

That first trip out Mikey had driven him to the mall and bought him sneakers so they could sightsee and his feet wouldn't hurt him. And so he wouldn't be up half the night, she added, cutting his corns and bunions. She had never seen such a man with such bad feet, but he had always had them, ever since she'd known him. It was from standing all those years in the Ford plant. Anybody's feet, she told him, would've given out, and long before yours. He loved the sneakers, white with black trim, and the name brand on the back; he wore them all the time now. "You'd wear them to bed if you could," she said, "admit it."

In "Sacrifice," Katherine Angell, a 40-year-old woman, is living with Joe, her boyfriend and landlord. After her father's death, Katherine insists that her mother live with her, even though her two married sisters objected because their mother would live in the attic in Joe's house.

But the tense awkwardness hangs between them, no matter how hard Katherine tries. It is the awkwardness between mother and daughter, of the mother having to depend on her daughter and of not wanting to, of an uncomfortableness or shame that Katherine is sharing a bed with Joe. And then there is the family history, the mother's knack for always saying the tactless thing.

After a confrontation in the kitchen, the mother retreats to the attic. She opens the hatch to the roof, where the rain is falling "in a beautiful shower of silk. . . . Now, she thought -- taking off her slippers and feeling the damp planks soft under her feet -- if only she could call Katherine, tell her daughter to come up to the skylight and feel this clean, cold water and how smooth it made the old boards." Katherine is already on her way, feeling guilty and wanting to make up:

She was looking at her mother standing under the open hatch in the pouring rain, an apology on the tip of her tongue, until she saw the old woman letting the rain make a puddle on the floor, probably seep down and patch the freshly painted living-room ceiling, and her voice crackled with the cruel words she had choked back from the very day when, out of the kindness of her heart, she -- not the other two, whose selfish smallness they had learned at home -- invited her mother to move in.

Aged mother, grown daughter -- here is an ancient choreography and one that carries such an ache of the familiar.

In "The Faithful," a radiologist, Dr. Warren, goes on his daily rounds trying to lift up the patients who are dying of cancer. He had wanted to be a surgeon, but chose to perform only painless cures -- "And now he was locked into a pattern of ordinary days, days spent rotating through his small paired offices, directing the bottom of power to ward off pain and death. This was still his part in the picture."

But "The Faithful" doesn't end here. The story is framed by Mrs. Leighton -- his 50ish, sturdy nurse for whom he buys a corsage because it is her birthday -- and his wife, Mary, his first nurse and who we learn is a depressive "completely out of her head." Yet Dr. Warren arrives home after the day's routine defeats and walks into his house to see his wife and daughter:

He closed his front door, light razored into the dark coolness of the house, firing a family picture over the mantle. He walked to where he could see his wife and daughter sitting on the patio, looking out into the garden in its tender early bloom. The plants were trembling, with light, light radiant on their faces, too. He stood in the shadow of the house until he found the words to carry him through the bright remainder of the day.

It is in such ways that Ms. McGarry's stories have the feel of paintings by Edward Hopper. Her characters are solitudinous and lonely, rarely funny, but they often carry with them, even in their defeat, a certain dignity. She is a writer who honors the human condition.

I only wish that her publisher had not made a book so dense with type on the page. More spacing between the lines -- especially for stories that have such a deliberate pacing and therefore need air -- could have produced a book as inviting to pick up as it is satisfying to read.

Mr. Leffler's second collection of poems, "After Light," will be published later this year. He lives in Takoma Park.

Title: "Home at Last"

Author: Jean McGarry

Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press

Length, price: 123 pages, $32.50 ($12.95 paperback)

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