OVER the course of her five previous novels, Alice McDermott has staked an impressive claim on a subject matter and a turf Irish-American Catholic families congregated, for the most part, in New York City and its suburbs on Long Island. The Irish have, of course, long been a significant presence in American fiction, appearing well before the mass immigration of the late 19th century (think of 'Huckleberry Finn'), and the novels, notably, of William Kennedy attest to the subject's continuing strength. McDermott adds her own luster to this seemingly familiar community through her skill at evoking small, memorable incidents and her willingness to ignore certain narrative conventions.
Most fictional family sagas contain a lot of what could be called plain reporting: answers to the questions (who? what? when? where? why?) that are the basic stuff of journalism. But in her family dramas, McDermott has largely refused to provide a helpful framework of dates, genealogies or factual background. Instead, she has focused on the shifting inner lives of her characters, confident that God or the larger picture will be found in the details.
The opening of her latest novel, 'After This,' demonstrates McDermott's technique at its most elliptical and effective. On a blustery April day in Midtown Manhattan, Mary (no last name given) leaves a church (almost certainly St. Patrick's Cathedral) after lighting a candle, as she has done throughout the war, even though the fighting is over. (Since the war in question is clearly World War II, the action must take place, at the earliest, in the spring of 1946). Mary has also prayed: 'She was 30, with no husband in sight. A good job, an aging father, a bachelor brother, a few nice friends. At least, she had asked so humbly, so earnestly, so seriously let me be content.' Outside the church, squinting in the sunlight, Mary meets a friend of her brother's, who unexpectedly asks her to dinner. 'At a restaurant,' he explains, when she seems confused. 'The two of us.' Mary agrees, they part, and she goes into Schrafft's for what's left of her lunch hour.
At the counter she exchanges small talk about the weather with a man seated next to her. 'Reminds me of some days we had overseas,' he says, standing up to pay his bill. Mary watches him walk away: 'And here, of all things, was desire again. (She could have put the palm of her hand to the front of his white shirt.)' Mary returns to her office and later goes home to a walk-up apartment in an unnamed borough to prepare lamb chops for her father and brother before her dinner date, which passes pleasantly and ends with a chaste kiss. The next day, when she returns to Schrafft's, the man she met the day before is waiting outside. Reader, she marries him.
This sequence could stand alone as a classic short story in the Joycean, epiphanic mode: an accretion of humdrum moments that gather force and blossom into the transfiguration of a life. Yet such stories seldom cry out for a sequel does anyone want to know what Gabriel and Gretta Conroy said to each other the morning after 'The Dead' concludes? and McDermott's deft, delicate beginning is a hard act to follow. Mary, so vivid in her first appearance, rapidly fades into careworn motherhood. Fewer than a dozen pages later, she and her husband, John Keane, are taking a rare break from Sunday Mass at a Long Island beach, deserted after the Labor Day weekend, with their three children. John seems stunned by his responsibilities; Mary's pregnancy will only add to them. A hurricane is beginning to churn up the Eastern Seaboard, and the stinging, wind-borne sand drives the family back home. That night, a tree in the Keanes' yard is blown over. The next morning, a neighbor with a chain saw, who also happens to be a registered nurse, appears just in time to help Mary deliver her baby.
Once this hectic episode concludes, McDermott's narrative turns episodic and digressive, and 'After This' begins to re