`After This,' like her kids, takes '60s tumult with a shrug

December 19, 2006|By SUSAN REIMER

I am a child of the 1960s and I have tried, off and on, to impress upon my children the searing nature of my coming of age.

Just about my first real memory is of the televised funeral of John F. Kennedy. Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were killed when I was in high school. Kent State abruptly ended my freshman year in college. My boyfriend had a draft number in the teens.

Feminism and the pill changed the definition of my sex. Watergate changed my career choice from a job to a calling. Nixon resigned as I was graduating from college, and Gerald Ford compounded the betrayal by pardoning him.

Loss and liberation. Idealism and betrayal. These are like the marks on the door jamb to record my changing height, my growth.

It is this turbulent period through which the family in Alice McDermott's new novel, After This, lives. Like my children, the author seems unimpressed by the momentousness that so many of my generation have ascribed to that time. For McDermott, the National Book Award winner for Charming Billy, life is what happens away from the headlines.

Her latest novel chronicles three decades in the life of the Irish Catholic Keane family of Long Island, John, Mary and their four children, as it tumbles through post-World War II America and into Vietnam Era America.

McDermott tells the story of those turbulent decades from the point of view of each member of the family. From Mary, an almost-old-maid working girl in the city who lights candles for soldiers every day on her lunch hour and who meets her future husband, a veteran, in Schrafft's.

To youngest daughter Clare, whose pregnancy as a high school senior and whose after-hours marriage in the family's church stands as a coda. You sense that she is the last girl in America to put into play any of the values that came before.

Jacob, named for a raw recruit who dies under the command of John Keane on his first day at the war, is killed in Vietnam, after failing at sports, at girls, at school, at being the oldest son.

Michael, sharp enough to keep himself in college and out of the Army's reach, disappears into an alcoholic haze of mediocrity, abandoning his daydreams and settling for teaching.

Annie, the bright child, accompanies a friend to have an abortion, goes off to London on a study-abroad program and, echoing her mother's fear of loneliness, quits school and runs off to live with a boy she meets on a bus.

Leaving Clare, the good child, to break her parents' hearts one last time.

In McDermott's chronicle of the Keane family, the events that dotted my life like bloody asterisks all occur off-stage. There is no mention of John, Bobby, Martin, Elvis or the Beatles. Even Jacob's death happens only as a call to Annie's school, as Clare's memory of her mother - "the cool stone of her mother's face and hands" - at his funeral.

Instead, the Keane family rides these turbulent times like corks in the waves. Overrun, yes, but enduring. Without drama, without histrionics, without comment.

McDermott's pointillistic style - the family portrait emerges from a million tiny details - suggests to me that perhaps my life did not have the drama that I have remembered. That my life, too, has been a series of moments, not a series of momentous occasions.

It is a beautiful book. And reading it is a humbling experience. Those of us who came of age during that time have long held the conceit that we invented idealism. That we invented sex. That we were the first to want peace. That we gave the world these gifts in response to the chaos around us and through the sheer force of our naive determination. That the betrayal we suffered in return was the deepest and most profound ever felt. That the world should take note of all we endured.

At the end of the novel, when the focus shifts to Clare, the nuns at her parochial school notice her new confidence when she returns from summer vacation wearing a boy's ring around her neck. Remembering all that has happened to the Keane family, the nuns nod and comment to each other, "with a shrug, Life goes on."

susan.reimer@baltsun.com

To hear audio clips of selected Susan Reimer columns, go to baltimoresun.com/reimer.

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