Its own Reward Alice McDermott of Bethesda learns tonight whether she's won a National Book Award. Either way, the accidental author will continue to respect, and to share, the preivilege of writing.

November 18, 1998|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,SUN STAFF

Alice McDermott's classroom at Johns Hopkins University was empty yesterday. She was in New York, at bookstores reading from her novel, "Charming Billy." Tonight in the Big Apple, she'll join other authors who will be listening for their names when judges announce the winner of this year's National Book Award for fiction.

Since Tom Wolfe's new book, "A Man in Full," was nominated, the race is not neck-and-neck, McDermott didn't write an acceptance speech and, instead of being tense, she plans to enjoy it. Just thinking that she'll finally get to meet John Updike, and in such circumstances, makes her giggle.

Especially since Alice McDermott is a reluctant author.

If she could be comfortable with any other job, one that would not leave her feeling depressed or foolish, she would not write -- it is too hard.

But write she must, and in spite of her angst, she has written four novels, all acclaimed. Two were Pulitzer finalists -- the best seller "At Weddings and Wakes" (1992) and "That Night" (1987) -- and two were National Book Award finalists -- "That Night" and "Charming Billy." Her first novel, "A Bigamist's Daughter," was published in 1982.

McDermott, 44, who now lives in Bethesda, became a writer by default. If anything bothered her, McDermott's mother told her back when she was growing up on Long Island, she should write it down and throw it away -- rather than say something she might later regret. A form of therapy.

By college, her career was sewn up: "I have bad news," a professor told her after reading her first novel, "you are a writer." He called a friend starting out in book editing -- Jonathan Galassi, now the publisher of Farrar, Straus & Giroux -- to tell him about McDermott.

While he called, the reluctant writer went to the library and listened over and over again to William Faulkner's 1950 Nobel Prize acceptance speech. The problems of the human heart in conflict with itself -- that alone makes good fiction and alone is worth the agony and the sweat, he said.

"It is the writer's privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past," Faulkner said.

She could be a writer, she realized, without having to say, "I am going to be the next Virginia Woolf."

It was a big step for the daughter of first-generation Irish-American parents, literate but not college-educated, who expected her to be a secretary. McDermott's old neighborhood was such that one childhood friend, after congratulating her about the National Book Award nomination recently, offered to "mess up a few faces" if it would help her win.

McDermott's subject is the life of the soul. She doesn't get at it by devising plots but by observing lives, particularly third-generation Irish-American families in the suburbs.

McDermott never intended to be a writer of Irish-American life -- that is simply the material at hand. But she does write in the tradition of Irish writers, Joyce among them, who examine past and present, love and loss, regret and its hold on life. Michiko Kakutani, in a New York Times review of "Charming Billy" in January, wrote that McDermott had invented a thoroughly original 20th-century version of Joyce's "The Dead."

In McDermott's hands, the reader can smell the Sunday roast beef and see the cook douse the overcooked Brussels sprouts with butter and salt. "Less plotted than painted," a reviewer in Commonweal wrote of "Charming Billy."

In truth, her plots are intricate and sometimes require a map. And it is probably Vladimir Nabokov she more consciously turns to and admires, though James Joyce was an early influence, she says.

'An innovative writer'

Her latest novel unfolds at the funeral of Billy Lynch in Queens and is narrated by his young niece. Billy was a drunk, a stereotype that did not interest McDermott at first but somehow makes a perfect subject for her theme of love and loss and redemption. Everybody knows the tragedy that befell him 30 years earlier: His true love, an Irish governess to whom he sent money from his extra job for years, died in Ireland of pneumonia.

But what is revealed at the funeral is that Billy's love never died -- she had married another man and used Billy's money to open a gas station. The narrator's father, Billy's cousin, had made up the death story to shelter Billy. Eventually Billy had learned the truth, when he went to Ireland to visit her grave.

Amid the failure of love, the losses, the triumphs, one thing is clear: The family is held together at such rituals as Sunday dinner, and by the sense of duty and acts of kindness cousin did for cousin.

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