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Friday, July 26, 2013

Dan Barry on Alice McDermott: exploring the human condition with “the echo of the regionally familiar”

Reader’s Almanac continues its presentation of remarks offered at the 2013 New York State Writers Hall of Fame induction ceremony with Dan Barry’s tribute to fellow Long Islander Alice McDermott. Barry is a reporter and columnist for The New York Times, where he has written the “This Land” column since 2007. Barry’s tribute is followed below by Ms. McDermott’s remarks.
Dan Barry
Photographs by Tatiana Breslow
Alice McDermott has sometimes been called a New York novelist.

That is—a New York Long Island novelist.

That is, a New York Long Island Nassau County novelist.

That is, a New York Long Island Nassau County novelist NOT from the North Shore, up there in Gatsby country, but kind of between the Roosevelt Field Mall, over by Garden City, and the Green Acres Mall, over there in Valley Stream, off of Sunrise.

On Long Island, you can be defined by your proximity to a mall. For example, I’m from over by the South Shore Mall.

This geo-specific attempt to categorize Alice, by the way, is so misleading, if not flat-out inaccurate, that the denizens of the food court at the mall would have one reaction:

“Nice try.”

Which is a Long Island way of saying: Wrong.

This is because Long Island is the land of indirection and misdirection. Where we come from, if you want to compliment someone’s haircut, you say, “Nice haircut.” And if you want to ridicule someone’s haircut, you say, “Nice haircut.”

It’s complicated.

But Long Islanders can also be quite blunt, so let’s be blunt: Alice McDermott is not an Irish American writer, or a Roman Catholic writer—or a New York writer. She is, simply, a brilliant writer. A writer of international standing. A writer for the ages.

Yes, it is true: The unforgettable characters that Alice has created inhabit a specific place on the map of fiction. A quote-unquote Long Island place, informed so deeply by the exhilarating rush of the big city asphalt to the west and by the healing solitude of the sand dunes to the far, far east.

In this place you will find Sheryl and Rick, the Romeo and Juliet lovers of That Night; the three unmarried Towne sisters of At Weddings and Wakes; John and Mary Keane, the ordinary, extraordinary married couple of After This; and, of course, himself, Billy Lynch, Charming Billy. You will also find that all about there are many, many children, their innocence being rubbed away as they take in the complications that await them in adulthood.

This place is a concrete place, a place of ticky-tacky houses with postage-stamp lawns and sidewalks disturbed by the roots of trees; of churches where we both celebrate and mourn amid the whiff of incense; of delicatessens and traffic jams and, yes, runs to the mall.

Its inhabitants are concrete people, everyday people, living everyday lives—mowing lawns, rushing to catch the express on the Long Island Rail Road, collapsing in front of the television with a drink. You and I know this place; these people.

Yet they are a thoroughly imagined people, and this is an entirely imagined place, given substance and flesh only by Alice’s exacting use of word and image. She needs no pyrotechnic devices in her plots to bring them alive; there are no bank heists, no cross-country adventures. Her stories are more dramatic than that because she captures the wonder and the horror and the romance and the grief in the interior of our daily routines.

She uses the echo of the regionally familiar to explore the essential questions of the human condition. Questions about faith, mortality, sibling rivalry, the limits of love, the futility of war, the tabula rasa of childhood—the smallest moment, something said, something seen, that can alter an entire life. These are the questions being asked in Bay Shore and in Beirut; in Massapequa and in Mogadishu. Universal questions.

Throughout the McDermott canon, there is also an undercurrent of enduring hope. The endless search for—and occasional grasp of—those moments of grace that make life worth living; moments found in the smell of a baby’s shampooed hair, or the warmth of a grandmother’s soft hand.

This is the journey we all take, and who better to lead us, to encourage us to pause along the way and take note, than Alice McDermott.

Here we are, hearing the sad, chiming music in the clink of the ice in Veronica’s drink in At Weddings and Wakes. Here we are, in After This, enjoying a simple day at Jones Beach with John and Mary Keane and their three children, the realization of how fleeting all this is upon them. Here we are, in Charming Billy, at that bar-and-grill in the Bronx, for the in-after following the funeral. We smell the hint of mildew in the place, that mix of past and present. We taste the roast beef, medium rare, and the green beans amandine.

And we are at the table among the mourners, clucking and whispering and gossiping—and trying to make sense of life and death.

I recently reread several of Alice’s novels, and I came away with one overriding thought. Two, actually.

The first is: How gifted she is. Every word she writes is so carefully chosen, so perfectly in concert with every other word, that she is incapable of constructing a lazy sentence. Every paragraph carries a pulse, a mixture of immediacy and reflection and, often, humor. This is how she describes a difficult woman who owns but never uses a beach house on the East End of Long Island:

“The only pleasure she ever got from it was the ability to withhold invitations to visit.”

And the second thought is that Alice McDermott is our Faulkner; our Joyce. Long Island is her South; her Dublin. She isn’t a New York writer so much as she is a writer from New York. And we, the people of New York State, are so fortunate to claim her. She belongs in the New York State Writers’ Hall of Fame.

And this guy from Long Island says, sincerely:

Nice. Very nice.

Ladies and gentlemen: Alice McDermott.
* * *
Alice McDermott
My mother was eighty when she first visited Ireland, the country both her parents had left early in the last century. She went on a two week tour with some of my cousins and when she returned I was surprised to discover that her enthusiasm for the place was somewhat subdued. Didn’t she find the country beautiful, I asked her. Didn’t she find the people charming? Oh sure, she said. It was lovely, it was fine.

Trying to prompt a more passionate response, I asked her, “Now that you’ve seen Ireland, don’t you feel closer to your parents?”

“Now that I’ve seen Ireland,” she replied, “I’m more grateful than ever that my mother moved to Brooklyn.”

Tonight, I, too, am grateful that my grandmother moved to Brooklyn. And that my parents moved from Brooklyn to Elmont. And that we took our family vacations in East Hampton. And that when the time came for me to go to college I took my Regents scholarship to Oswego.

The immigrant enclaves of the city, the post-war developments of Nassau County’s suburbs, the natural, as well as the man made, loveliness of the South Fork, provided this developing writer with a geographic metaphor I’m still exploring: a metaphor of yearning, of aspiration. Of the enduring—and, to me, astonishing—human effort, born of love, to discover something better for the next generation, something more certain, something more secure, something that speaks to our barely intuited but persistent longing for peace, for beauty.

Bustling immigrant ghetto, cookie cutter houses on square green lawns, the breathtaking sweep of dune grass, sand, endless sea. The novelist’s fundamental question—What does my character want? —was made vivid for this aspiring writer by the very geography of my corner of New York State.

What was not so vivid to me in those formative years was that I was a writer at all, aspiring or any other kind. But because I took my Regents scholarship to Oswego – Oswego was rated the number three party school that year—I found myself in an English class with Dr. Paul Briand, a retired Air Force colonel who called me down to the podium at the end of class – a class titled the Nature of Nonfiction, to which I had submitted as my first assignment an autobiographical essay that was complete fiction—and said, “I’ve got bad news for you, kid. You’re a writer. And you’ll never shake it.”

Oswego gave me many gifts: chief among them was the lifelong assurance that the world’s great literature, its novels and its poetry, belongs wholly to each one of us—despite the number of people I have encountered over the years who seem to believe that the literary arts belong more legitimately to the kids who studied English at places like Harvard or Yale. But on that night in Dr. Briand’s class, I was also given my career. And I suppose I have my grandmother who had the good sense to move to Brooklyn to thank for that as well.
At a June 4 ceremony here in midtown Manhattan, The Empire State Center for the Book formally inducted eight writers into the New York States Writers Hall of Fame, which it established in 2010 to recognize New York-born or based poets, novelists, journalists, and historians who have made an indelible mark on our culture. The class of 2013 included living writers Marilyn Hacker, Alice McDermott, Walter Mosley, and Calvin Trillin, as well as James Fenimore Cooper, Countee Cullen, Miguel Piñero, and Maurice Sendak.

Previous posts from the Hall of Fame ceremony:
Honor Moore on Marilyn Hacker
Charles Molesworth on Countée Cullen

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