Old-fashioned hair cut, sad eyes, but with a knowing and contented smile, someone who had taken life in and accepted all its gifts and disappointments. Not remembering the name of the book or the author, I tried to search on the web with various keywords to see if I could find the author and her book. To no avail. Then one day, I found Catholic Fiction and bumped right into her. I recognized that picture and made a beeline to the library to find her books.
After This is Alice McDermott’s story of a family that starts out in the years after World War II and whose children come of age in the tumultuous and perilous times of the late 1960s. The book is suffused with the humility reflected in the eyes of Mrs. McDermott herself. We are not talking about historical figures or even upper-middle-class "Ordinary People," but of real ordinary people, who struggle to build a family and a scrape a living together in a Long Island suburb of diminutive small homes.
A street in postwar Levittown, New York: a street that I imagine was similar to the setting for After This.
In part the book shows how these people were ravaged by the seismic changes in their culture: a son goes to Vietnam to prove himself as a man and becomes a martyr to his own goodness and fears. Of the daughters, one is overseas and lives with a man, another becomes pregnant and wrestles with her Catholic conscience. All of these vital issues are presented sotto voce, so to speak.
What I liked about After This was this: the story is infused with history — those events that always seem beyond our control but affect our lively so profoundly — and with liturgy and prayer.
For history, for example:When John and Mary Keane, the parents, said "during the war," that is, World War II,
their children imagined the world gone black and white, imagined a hand passing like a dark cloud over the earth, blotting out the sun for what might only have been the duration of a single night, or the length of a storm. Long before any of them was born, after all, their parents, the world itself, had emerged from that shadow.Is this not the shadow that haunted the world long after the war had been won. Had the war been won truly in the heart of man?
And for liturgy: In the midst of a hurricane, after the electricity goes out, the family goes down to the basement:
Their mother patted Jacob’s hand to soothe him. On their way through the kitchen she took a bottle of milk from the refrigerator and the remaining paper cups from their picnic. They followed their father’s flashlight down the wooden steps. … They sat together on the old could that was just the other side of the toy-train table. Their mother between the two boys to avoid trouble, Annie on her father’s lap. The washing machine and the sink and the long string of the clothesline where she hung clothes in bad weather were just behind them, each illuminated, however dimly, by the blue light of the storm at the narrow windows. Around their own circle of light, their mother said, “Let’s say an Angel of God,” the bodies of her two boys pressed against her. “Angel of God,” they said, following her voice, “My guardian dear, to whom God’s love, commits me here, ever this night, be at my side, and guard, to rule and guide. Amen.”
Catholic religious card with guardian angel guiding two children across a broken bridge.
Such interpolations of liturgy appear throughout the book, letting us know that, especially within the mother, another world is always at hand to give strength for the survival of the soul in this one.
My problem with the book is only this: it is way too short. The most vivid characters are the children, whereas the characters I was most fascinated with were the parents. I wanted to know everything about what made them tick, who they were, and what they thought of every moment described and of their own past moments. Most especially I wanted to know far more profoundly the feelings of the mother, which I knew were complicated but possessing a goodness that softened the harsh edges of a sometimes disappointing life. I felt that the book was character-dispersed.
But that greedy complaint does not take away from the fabric of the book itself. God’s love is truth that rescues our souls from the follies of man. The echoes of prayer and liturgy throughout the book remind the readers, as it reminds the characters, of this loving truth.
You can read interviews with Alice McDermott in the Washington Post here and here. Articles on Alice McDermott can also be found in the New York Times.