Friday, February 3, 2012

Alice McDermott's Wakes and Funerals

Alice McDermott: Trying to write while her children are at school.

"To get it right," says Alice McDermott in a beautiful article on her life as an author of fiction, "is to find the language that conveys what is beyond the reach of words, the language that allows us, reader and writer both, to glimpse whatever it is that makes us love life terribly, as Fitzgerald put it. Even for a minute."

I think McDermott has achieved this aim in Wakes and Funerals. Mostly seen from the eyes of three children, the novel centers on a family--mother, father, and three children, who live out in the Long Island suburbs during the 1950s. Twice a week each summer, the mother, Lucy, drags the children to visit her stepmother, called simply Momma, and Lucy's three sisters who live in a small, airless apartment in Brooklyn. The trip takes multiple bus changes, and they reamin there through dinner, after which the father comes to pick up his family and drive them back to Long Island.

One is amazed at the incredible patience of the children. Lucy comes back to her stepmother's household mostly to complain about her unhappiness with her marriage, lamenting that her husband "is not the same" since he returned from the war. "This is not the man I married," she says, although by the end of the book she appears to have reconciled herself to loving him.

Girl in Brooklyn in the 1950s.

One wonders if her husband is really Lucy's problem. In accounts of their yearly vacations and whenever he is present, the father seems to be a loving man who tries to do the best for his family and throw some fun into the bargain. Fun is at a premium at the house in Brooklyn, where Momma reigns over three not-young daughters, two of whom have not found the gumption to build families of their own. One had happily become a nun, but left the convent because her joie de vivre far outstripped her attachment to God. This sister makes efforts to alleviate the boredom of her two nieces and nephew and eventually falls in love and marries, but Momma's house in Brooklyn in under a shroud woven by grief over the death in childbirth of the mother of Lucy and her sisters, the widower's subsequent marriage to his wife's sister--Momma, and the father's sudden death shortly thereafter.

Yet, this does not seem to be the true subject of McDermott's book. We are not treated to in-depth exposures of character. Rather, it is as if McDermott is writing about the cultural air. Her major focus is the ambiance, the details of everyday living, the descriptions of the streets both in Long Island and Brooklyn, the apartment, the cars, the people, the pets--the life--the world that these characters go about their lives in. Catholicism is also a unvarying presence--the home over home. Reading the many detailed descriptions in the book as the characters move through their story, one feels as if one were being carried down a stream created by the ambiance she describes. While all characters are treated sympathetically, they are part of the stream, too. It is the total world they live in--the very air they breathe--that McDermott most beautifully and lovingly evokes.


Merisi said...

Alice McDermott has a special place in my heart!
I lived not far from her at the time "Charming Billy" and "At Weddings and Wakes" first came out and able to go to book readings with the author. Somewhere I still keep the notes i made at the time.
Have you read "Charming Billy"?

Linda said...

Hi Merisi!
Remarkable. She sounds like such a great person to know. I haven't read Charming Billy yet but it is on my list. I read After This and was very moved by it. Loved the characters. I think this article she wrote on her own writing and family life is wonderful. Hope all is well with you and yours!