'After This' by Alice McDermott

Her new novel plumbs life in the 1960s

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One of the most evocative American novelists, Alice McDermott opens her new novel with such cinematic detail of a cold spring wind that you can almost feel involuntary tears welling as you read.

It is one of her gifts, making prosaic events exquisite with detail, putting you there.

   
"AFTER THIS"

By Alice McDermott
Farrar, Straus & Giroux ($24)

   

The cold storm acts as an apt metaphoric beginning. A little leerily, you are set to travel back to the dawn of the me-generation and the flaccid there-ness of its middle-class grounding. But only a little leerily, because you are in McDermott's hands.

The parents in her story are John and Mary Keane, who meet at a lunch counter, sort of, and whose brief courtship is implied after they bump into each other again.

They are married with three children at the beach by the second chapter, and there, on a brusque and inappropriate day for the beach, the family relationship is established: the acquiescence of the wife to her temperamental husband, a World War II veteran who came home damaged in ways unspoken and unknown to his wife and three children, Jacob, a cautious kid, the rambunctious Michael, who bullies him, and the daughter, Annie; they will have another child, Claire, before long.

This struggling family of six will lurch through the 1960s as solid and practicing Catholics in a Long Island community.

McDermott does not satisfyingly plumb this period -- which was so rich in strife then and rich in what-if romanticism today -- as if to show that the human endeavor doesn't really bend to its place in time. It goes from spring to summer to fall to winter to spring, over and over and over, year after year, decade after decade, pretty much the same no matter where or when.

The large and small dramas of this family's life -- Mary alone at home going into labor while the other kids play noisily outside; the storm that felled the tree; the demise of the old church and the marvel of newfangled design that replaces it; and the family's uneasy alliance with Mary's smugly cheerless co-worker, Pauline -- pass through a decade in which any family, let alone a Catholic family, would at least have had some reaction to the death of President John F. Kennedy.

This family's actions and reactions owe more to its internal dynamics than to anything happening in the world -- until the Vietnam War hits home.

The blackest day in this family's life flicks by like a hummingbird, a tragedy implied by reaction, and spare reaction at that.

But by this time, you know Mary well enough to feel her pain. She is, in fact, the only one you really get to know; her husband and her children happen to her, not to you.

The spare reactions, the big moments implied, the passage of time without clear time frame and the comparatively lengthy and precise descriptions of the mundane are obviously well-thought-out elements of narration.

This story is sophisticated in design, spare like an elegant entree at a fine restaurant. Most readers are a little hungrier for details and explanations, no matter what the story.

This reviewer's only other criticism is that the last third of the novel seems to straggle off, mimicking the children leaving home.

When the actions of each family member are no longer cast in the context of the family, the story loses the grounding McDermott had established so well that a reader of a certain age could almost hear Cronkite on the TV in the background.


Diana Nelson Jones can be reached at djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626.


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