My rating: 5 of 5 stars
“That night” is the night Rick, a teenage boy, came to get Sheryl, his girlfriend from her house after Sheryl’s mother blocked them from seeing each other. A fight breaks out between the neighborhood men, protecting Sheryl because her father has died, and Rick’s friends. “Until then, I had thought all violence was swift and surefooted, somehow sleek, even elegant. I was surprised to see how poor it really was, how laborious and hulking.” [p 4]
The story is narrated by younger girl neighbor. She acts as both the young narrator of that night and also as a more omniscient third party narrator. The story unfolds like a series of comets in extreme elliptical orbit around the sun as the years pass. Each comet comes upon the sun with its own viewpoint and velocity, telling a part of the story before departing as another comet comes in. At first we see the fight itself, then what went into forming that night as well as what came later.
Through the events of the night and the ramifications McDermott explores the power and limits of love when confronted with loss and death. “‘Listen’, [Sheryl] said, ‘If you knew everybody you loved was just going to end just disappearing, you’d probably say, Why bother, right? You’d probably even stop liking people if you knew it wasn’t going to make any difference, they’re just going to eventually disappear. Right?'” [p 71]
And yet, we can’t help but love, knowing that love is powerless to save people. “She wants to love someone else. This emptiness left like an impression by the way she loved her father must be filled or else it will be as though he never lived.” [p 176]
The novel explores love between girlfriend and boyfriend and well as parents and children. Love drives the desire to bring children into the world even though “the love that had formed them would not necessarily keep them alive.” [p 164]
This is an excellent book weaving exquisite detailed descriptions of the everyday and the extraordinary. She makes something as mundane as a bowling alley come to life. “The bowling alley in our town was air-cooled: the decal on the door showed the letters capped with blue-and-white glaciers, dripping like mounds of ice cream. Inside, the cold air smelled of foot powder and warm socks. There was a row of pinball machines in the entryway, a cigarette machine, two mahogany-colored phone booths with seats like Ping-Pong paddles and doors that turned on both a light and a fan when they were pulled closed.” [p 33]
And McDermott captures the everyday extraordinary beauty of a father and his young son. “Sheryl watched him as he gently lifted Roger from the floor. The child whimpered a little as he rose through the air, but then settled against his father’s body as if it had been made for his rest, the shoulder carved to fit his cheek, the arm bent simply to cradle him.” [p 135]
Alice McDermott deftly tackles the themes of love, loss, and death with exquisite prose and a beautiful story telling method of looping back again and again with more facts, more history, more future in each telling.
This novel is an example of why I love fiction so much; it holds the lives of others up as a mirror for us.
This is my fourth Alice McDermott book – what a rich vein of ore to mine.