Above the funeral parlor, on the brownstone’s top floor, the old women gather, talking about the dead: whose body is being prepared in the basement, who is being waked upstairs, whose family has called, newly requiring services. A lifetime at its end needs careful remembering, neither sentimental nor cruel — colored with bits of jagged-edged heartbreak and scandal for veracity, but tempered with mercy. Such are the stories the women tell over tea.
“They would know the clear-eyed truth of it. And they would know as well how to choose their words to tell a kinder tale,” Alice McDermott writes in her incantatory new novel, in which the landscape of memory is a chiaroscuro in motion and the sightlines are seldom entirely unobstructed.
“Someone,” too, is an old woman’s tale told at the end of a very long life. But its narrator, Marie, is recalling her own story, reaching as far back as her childhood between the world wars, when she lived with her parents and her older brother, Gabe, in a Brooklyn, N.Y., neighborhood brimming with Irish Catholics.
McDermott structures the story in crosscut, so we meet Marie and her husband in middle age before we join the old women at the funeral home, where Marie works fresh out of high school, gaining poise as she greets the mourners. We have seen her elderly, and a mother several times over, before we watch her nearly die of an infection after giving birth to her first child — an episode that McDermott imbues with a surprising degree of suspense.
We spy the old neighborhood from a child’s-eye view, then later in free-fall decline, before we snap back decades to the sweltering day when teenage Marie’s heart is dashed by an astonishingly creepy boyfriend, and Gabe steers his devastated sister on a long walk through Brooklyn that’s meant as a salve.
“Who’s going to love me?” Marie asks her brother.
“Someone,” Gabe tells her, underwhelming but accurate. “Someone will.”
The narrator of a life is always unreliable, because memory is. When Marie meets, for the second time, the man she’ll marry, his opener echoes improbably a line she recalls from childhood — the script of a romantic plot never set in motion. “Is it you again?” Tom asks her. A tenderhearted man, he is better than most at detecting loneliness and responding with simple human kindness. It’s a more utilitarian trait than it might seem, particularly in straitened midcentury America.
Catholicism seeps into every aspect of life in Marie’s family, even if they’re “not so enamored of the priesthood as some,” as her mother insists. “There were just as many men in rectories, she said, who were vain or lazy or stupid as there were in the general population.” Even so, when Gabe joins the priesthood, it is cause for joy; when he resigns, cause for sorrow.
“My mother always said there’s nothing more pathetic than an old bachelor who’s not a priest,” a woman says over a funeral lunch in McDermott’s 1998 novel “Charming Billy.”
What about an old bachelor who isn’t a priest but used to be, and a good one? Gabe had been “a handsome boy, his parents’ pride, and only a year at his first parish before he came back home without his collar. A mystery.” For Marie, his unexplained flight from vocation becomes a puzzle to worry for decades.
The web of love these siblings have been born into, to which each of them will add, forms a safety net whose design — at once sturdy and breathtakingly fragile — is fully evident only from a distance of years. Who’s going to love them? Someone.
But McDermott is no merchant of nostalgia. In the old neighborhood, pitiless boys and girls find a handy target in the sad veteran down the street, blinded in the Great War. Marie’s immigrant mother, her mind adrift in old age, requires repeated assurance that she is in Brooklyn, not back in Ireland, as she fears.
Marie’s sweet father, who dies too young, is her winking ally in childhood, and she his accomplice on evening strolls that take him to a speakeasy. His drinking shapes her notion of masculinity. The “scent of alcohol on a man was a charm for me still,” she observes as an adult.
The maudlin and the twee that have tripped up so many others’ attempts at Irish-American portraiture are no temptation for McDermott. She does not genuflect, nor does she cling to grievance. She looks with a sharp gaze and a generous spirit, finds multitudes even in a clan’s closed air, and tells a clear-eyed, kinder tale.