In "Someone," Alice McDermott's elegiac new novel, time and place have a dream-like fluidity. There's no doubt that we're in Brooklyn, but this is a Brooklyn of immigrants, largely Irish Catholics, whose new world is a palimpsest in which the old world still routinely peeks through.
Marie, the defiantly ordinary narrator of this lyrical study of quotidian life, recalls watching the long parade of subway commuters return home from work. As a "little girl cartoon" of 7 with thick glasses and black bangs, she'd perch herself on the stoop in anticipation of her father's arrival, eager for a glimpse of his evening paper and the "high shine" of his shoes.
He'll die from cancer when she's still young, a beloved presence transformed into a tender absence. But his memory will be revived whenever she smells liquor on a man's breath, evoking as it does their evening walks, which would inevitably include a stop at the corner tavern, where he'd duck in for a quick one.
"Everyone wore hats," Marie tells us, tipping us off that we're in the sepia-toned past. Dates are intentionally withheld, but the timeline of this generation comes into focus as the Second World War intrudes with its epochal violence.
In this series of prose snapshots, arranged with deliberately loose chronology and written in a more impressionistic style than "Charming Billy," McDermott's National Book Award-winning novel, feelings prevail over historical facts. The texture of life as it is experienced subjectively seems to be the goal for an author who's a realist with a gift for compression. In McDermott's hands, whole eras are conjured in the hint of a mother's lost brogue or the poignant pretensions of a set of lace curtains blocking out an increasingly boisterous street.
Outside of Marie's childhood home, the usual game of stickball is underway. Bill Corrigan, a nearly blind World War I veteran, is parked in his lawn chair, ready to serve as referee when there's a dispute over calls. To Marie's bookish brother, Gabe, who will leave the priesthood soon after being ordained, there's something parable-worthy about this neighborhood fixture, an umpire who cannot see.
Marie, known in her household as "the little pagan," is less philosophical than her brother, more attuned to material reality than symbolic meanings. She's precociously aware, however, of the inevitability of loss. "Someone" chronicles her unsentimental education in the fact that hearts break and people really do disappear for good.
Death occurs just a few pages into the book. Pegeen Chehab, daughter of a Syrian baker and an Irish mother, stops to chat with Marie on her way home from her office job in lower Manhattan. Unsteady on her feet, she reports having taken a spill on the subway and being helped to her feet by a handsome stranger she hopes will turn into her Prince Charming. A few pages later she stumbles in her home and is killed.
Marie inherits from Pegeen the word "amadan," Irish slang for "fool." It's a term that Pegeen (as rough and unruly as the Pegeen in J.M. Synge's masterpiece, "The Playboy of the Western World") laughingly applied to herself and Marie less good-naturedly applies to others. But the word in both its Irish and English varieties recurs throughout the novel as a leitmotif, and by the end of the book Marie uses it less as an insult and more in the way Lear employs it when preaching to the blinded Gloucester: "When we are born, we cry that we are come / To this great stage of fools."
Fools, in other words, in the Elizabethan sense of victims — victims of suffering, injustice, mortality and all the other basic human facts that not even the luckiest of us can transcend.
It might seem strange to invoke the greatest of all Shakespearean tragedies with a minor-scale novel that lingers in kitchens over aprons and cooking ingredients, but McDermott's tragic sensibility doesn't depend on momentous plotting. Charles Dickens may be an important influence on her — Fagin, the kindly mortician who offers Marie her first real job, is named after a villainous character in "Oliver Twist" and is always pressing Dickens' novels on her — but when melodramatic incidents occur (and they do here as they do in life), they are treated without any sensational fanfare.
Nothing seems to happen to Marie, but before you know it several people near and dear to her have died, her first love cruelly abandons her for a woman from a wealthier family, another man comes along and she almost dies in childbirth after marrying him, her brother loses his religious vocation, and illness and debility threaten havoc on her golden years. These events are so embedded in the fabric of life that they take some time to register their devastating significance. Friendship, love and kindness abound as well, but they too are ensconced in the daily clutter that serves as the protective shell of being.
Just as McDermott manages to write lyrically in plain language, she is able to find the drama in uninflected experience. This is the grand accomplishment of "Someone," a deceptively simple book that is, in fact, extraordinarily artful, a novel that traces the arc of an unexceptional, almost anonymous life and, seemingly by accident though of course on purpose, turns a run-of-the-mill story into a poem.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 232 pp., $25
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