A beautiful, unsentimental book proves Alice McDermott is a genius

Review Novel

September 10, 2006|By Beth Kephart | Beth Kephart,Special to the Sun

After This

Alice McDermott

Farrar, Straus and Giroux / 288 pages / $24.00

There is the temptation, after reading Alice McDermott, to read nothing else for the longest time - to hold every exquisite word of her most exquisite novels in your head. There is the temptation to declare that she, along with Michael Ondaatje, is the best living writer of our age. That she exercises patience, compassion and wisdom where others emphasize strut, that she trusts herself with the power of scenes over the inflated intricacies of complicated plot.

There is the temptation to use the word "genius" in association with McDermott's name, and this morning, having just completed her sixth novel, After This, I will, I do. McDermott, author of Charming Billy and At Weddings and Wakes, among other titles, is a genius, and After This is her best book.

The story itself can be summarized in a line or two: An Irish Catholic family comes of age during the 20th century's middle years. It is formed when an almost-spinster, Mary, marries an older World War II veteran, John Keane. It gains dimension as four children - Jacob, Michael, Annie, and Clare - are born. It hardens into itself and breaks from itself as John grows unyielding, and Jacob's inherent fearfulness makes itself known, and Michael's recklessness seeds trouble, and Annie and Clare struggle to find their respective ways. Its fissures grow as a former office-mate of Mary's, an unmarried tart named Pauline, slowly joins the family, producing grudges on all sides. A modern church goes up in the Keanes' Long Island community. The Vietnam War steals sons. Abortion becomes too easy an option.

That's the story, but the wonder of After This lies almost entirely in its execution. In the long, mesmerizing hover of scenes, in the accretion of details so unexpected and yet so true, in the poetry of McDermott's sentences, not one of which can be accused of excessive lyricism or false metaphor. A "slapstick wind storm" signals change. A day at the beach foreshadows a life. A long wait at the World's Fair to see a Michelangelo statue stirs with premonition. The construction of the new cathedral announces a new, discomfiting modernity.

None of this is heavy-handed, plugged in. All of it lives inside the skin of the most masterful imaginable prose: "Beyond them, the ocean was high, whitecapped, agitated. There were disks of black and gray as well as gold among the rushing swells. In the panhandle, in the Carolinas, metal blinds had been drawn, iron awnings brought down on the white houses that were bunkers now, among the palm trees and flamingos. But here the sky was mostly blue and clear, except for a few white, rushing clouds just above the horizon."

One of the most extraordinary gifts of After This is McDermott's pursuit of the echo - the stuttered line or incident that repeats. A thought, perhaps, that one character has but another, in the most eloquently modified terms, speaks. A creeping anxiety that has no root in the present circumstance but is answered later on. Pauline breaks her wrist just before Mary and John Keane's wedding; it will snap again, many years later, on the eve of something more intensely life-changing. A simple line about the distractions of TV while doing homework will rise innocently enough in one passage, only to repeat itself, many years on, to yield a twanging aftermath. The subtly repeating motifs and lines of After This deeply tie the book's many parts and create of the whole a poem that might, and should, endlessly be re-read and dissected.

After This is a beautiful book that is shorn of sentimentality. It is a work of art that never loses its characters or purpose. It takes far more risks than it seems to take, is infinitely more than a story about family, even as it plumbs family's deepest depths. It's not just the metaphors, such as the one about holding one's index finger under three light switches as if hoping to keep three little noses from sneezing, that catch one's breath. It's the complicated reckoning that goes on throughout, as in this passage about friendship:

"And what had bound them all these years had more to do with how their acquaintance had begun ... with habit and circumstance, obligation and guilt, than it had ever had to do with affection, commiseration. There had been a trick in it, too, their friendship, something far more complicated than `Feed my lambs.' There had been the trick of living well, living happily in her ordinary life under Pauline's watchful eye. Of living well, living happily, even under the eye of a woman who always saw the dashed tear, the torn seam, who remembered the cruel word, the failed gesture, who knew that none of them would get by on good intentions alone, or on the aspirations of their pretty faith."

After This shuffles time and sense like a deck of cards. It demands your careful reading.

Beth Kephart is the award-winning author of five memoirs. Two new books - an autobiography of the Schuylkill River and a young adult novel - are due out next year.

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