Trying to Be Someone in Irish, Working-Class Brooklyn: Alice McDermott’s Someone

bruce davidson 1959 brooklyn gang photo

At the end of Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil, we see Tanya, a jaded gypsy, reflecting on the death of her ex, Hank Quinlan, a corrupt detective who had just been shot by his partner.  “He was a lousy cop,” she says matter-of-factly. “Is that all you have to say for him?” asks Schwarz, another cop.  Tanya brushes aside the question.  “He was some kind of man,” she says.  “What does it matter what you say about people?”

What indeed.  If Breaking Bad recently reminded us of the futility even the most powerful and dynamic people face when they attempt to preserve a legacy (linking Walter White to Shelley’s “Ozymandias”), we might wonder what the everyman and everywoman may hope to expect from a world that moves relentlessly forward and leaves them behind.

This is the theme of Alice McDermott’s new novel, Someone, the title of which screams that it’s a tale of a very ordinary, even unspecific life—an Irish-American woman in Brooklyn in the mid-twentieth century, with all the mundane hardships and small hopes that might come to a woman of her class, race, time, and place.  The protagonist, Marie, is “some kind of woman,” and that’s about it.  The novel is not social history—its storyline only tangentially touches on historical setpieces of white flight, urban decline, depression and war—but it does approach something like “representativeness,” to the extent that the peculiarities of any one person, any everywoman’s life might be consistent with the larger pattern of the whole—a working-class Brooklyn of the 1930s and 40s, a suburban Rego Park of the 1950s and 60s.

The book follows the travails of Marie, a woman so reticent and unobtrusive that you wonder at first whether you’ll ever even learn the narrator’s name.  Throughout the book, she bumps up against the stories of others—her sweet, sickly father, fond of drink; her almost preternaturally mature brother Gabe, who is on track for the priesthood; a “gimpy” but charming neighborhood boy, Walter Hartnett, who has one leg shorter than the other; her own grown, preoccupied, professional children at some undetermined period in the late twentieth century.  We see her life unfold in a series of flashes, vignettes that find her a small girl with poor eyesight in Depression-era New York, a young woman with a job at a funeral home, a harried wife and mother, and an enfeebled old woman in a nursing home—albeit not in that order.

As the little moments unfold, each calls back and forward to another, giving the sense of someone remembering a past nearly forgotten.  This mode of storytelling has the powerful effect of reminding the reader that any moment, no matter how powerful or seemingly significant, loses its potency in the ceaseless churning tide of time.  A landmark like a first makeout session is followed by a first brush with love’s merciless heartbreaks, and then by a jump forward in time, an episode of illness and hospitalization—another moment of helplessness—different in tone and texture and context, decades later, when the narrator is a wife and mother.  In light of the vulnerabilities of motherhood and old age, the towering heights and crushing lows of adolescence seem both sweet and ironic, though no less significant.

The whole book unfolds in this sort of timeless time, a dim half-light of both hindsight and immersion in the past. We learn little directly about Marie—certainly not what others think of her, since the entire novel is seen through her narrow (and sometimes literally blurry) view of the world.  She can no more see herself than she can see the world without her thick, bottlecap glasses.  We know she is stubborn, perhaps even parsimonious with affection—sometimes expressing her love in the most oblique ways, as in a difficult and bittersweet episode when her mother tries to teach her, a young girl, to cook soda bread, and she resists for her own obscure reasons.

Someone is filled with these richly observed and resonant moments, when McDermott describes something so small as a twitch in a character’s smile and telegraphs the depths of a vast personal history.  There is Tom, who becomes Marie’s husband—a sweaty, skinny, broad-faced man who is both awkward and voluble, combining his own eagerness to please with a winning joie de vivre despite his grueling experience as an orphan and prisoner of war.  He is the perfect complement and unlikely suitor for the prickly Marie, who first looks upon him with a bit of pity and even disdain, but soon comes to see his affirming presence as filling in an emotional void around her that she is ill-equipped to address.  Tom is as generous and attuned to the needs of others as Marie is reserved and diffident, and the reader learns all this through the handful of scenes in which the character appears, as if he sprung fully realized from the skull of Athena.  On their first meeting:

It was the sensation of standing on a pier with a stranger, watching a familiar face disappear over the water’s horizon and knowing suddenly that all kinship now was determined by the fact of earth beneath your feet or only sea. For a moment was I more kin to this florid young stranger than I was to my brother, the failed priest, at my side. (81)

Throughout, McDermott displays an acute sensitivity to the ways that ordinary people cope with the gruesome parade of misfortune that can march through any life, particularly a working-class or lower middle-class one in mid-twentieth century America.  We see the sad, small saga of Bill Corrigan, a World War I vet, blinded in combat, who sits on the street and “referees” the rowdy neighborhood boys’ stickball games—whose difficult life ends in a tragedy that is so unpredictable and sad if only for its mundaneness.

McDermott’s greatest device, though, is the job she cooks up for Marie, who has heard from her erstwhile beau Walter Hartnett and the unfortunate Pegeen Chehab (a half-Irish, half-Syrian neighbor) that working in Manhattan is for the birds, and who is finally forced by her iron-willed mother to take a job in a nearby funeral home in Brooklyn.  She becomes a sidekick to the equanimous Mr. Fagin, the funeral director who teaches her in the ways of grieving and public relations.  He does not need her to do any dirty work, he says—certainly nothing dealing directly with “the body,” as Marie comes to call it, making the point to friends that the home’s cargo is no different than a box of oranges or Spradley’s sprockets.

What Fagin needs her for is to soothe the families and friends who to come to visit the deceased.  Having an attractive young woman in a nice dress to tend to the bereaved accomplishes several important goals.  First and foremost, Fagin explains, it gives the husbands and sons a relieving thought—when they imagine their poor lost sister, wife, or mother on the mortician’s table, they are panged by the ugly image of some other man running his hands all over the most intimate aspects of her body; the old funeral director has caught this moment of discomfort in the men’s eyes.  He reasoned that having a young woman in the operation somehow disarmed this concern, because the men could compute that perhaps the female employee was the one to do all that stuff.

Beyond the pragmatic aim of assuaging the psychosexual anxieties of sons and husbands, Marie also provides a much broader service in her role as a funeral home greeter in the 1940s: to remind the bereft that life goes on, that the cycle continues.  The end is not the end—at least not for everyone, not for the world.  Fagin also wants Marie to check in with his elderly mother upstairs, “a tiny old woman with a small, pale, pretty face” (119). Some of the novel’s most delightful scenes occur when Marie is welcomed into the knowing circle of the old women who gather around Mrs. Fagin, who gossip relentlessly and spin a yarn for each corpse and each family that passes through the business, taking account of the sexual pecadilloes (“words falling off into a long nod indicated sex… eyebrows, nod, and all the other women would cluck their tongues in sympathy”) even as they saw off the edges of ugly scenarios to tell a more sympathetic story about those who needed it.  Marie is a true novice in their world, and they treat her kindly, brushing over her naivete in a way that still lets her know she has so much to learn.

In her job, Marie learns about “the vigil”—the long, arduous march to death that the dying person must take during a prolonged illness, when friends and family come to visit, gather around, and wait out the inevitable.  In many ways, Fagin has hired her to be that beautiful and comforting presence at the conclusion of a process that creates such long-sustained stress and takes such a toll on the loved ones—a relief, of sorts, when the marathon is finally over.

I never really experienced “the vigil” until recently—the few family members I’ve lost died suddenly, and far away—but I read Someone as I watched someone I love lose her grip on life, and I recognized the same burden it places on all involved—the person who is contemplating not existing anymore, and those around her who are praying for as many moments as possible, but still deploring each painful moment as it passes.  Seeing small children running around does serve a kind of purpose, in the way that Marie’s consoling presence at Fagin’s funeral home did—a hope for resurrection or renewal, that life in general endures even when a particular life doesn’t.  In this McDermott found the perfect narrative setup to explore the fleetingness of the lives of the great mass of people, the anonymous stories that flit through the obituary pages and end up obscurer than Ozymandias.

One of the recurring motifs of the book is “closing up”—the sense that even the most gruesome or heart-rending tragedies break open the world for only a brief period, before the world recovers and moves on, as if it never happened.  If I die tomorrow, MTV goes on; the Tea Party goes on; income tax continues to be collected and people go on buying groceries and counting their Kroger points.  Everyone has a sense of this, the awful realization that even though you are the center of your world, the main protagonist—as Wittgenstein said, you are not the world, but you and the world coincide—that the world will exist perfectly fine without you, after you’re gone.  McDermott’s insight is that life seals up both triumph and tragedy.  Even the greatest moments recede into the regular humdrum of everyday business, just like the seemingly impassable heartache.  When Marie visits the home of a man whose mother’s death has just been handled by the funeral home, she sees rambunctious children running amok, “the chaotic world happily closed up over their mother’s disappearance” (113).  “Walter who had come here tonight—perhaps the only one of his contemporaries left behind—come down from the Bronx to weep like a child before the world closed up over Bill Corrigan’s passing” (142).  The metaphor even takes physical, biological form, when Marie recovers from a traumatic C-section: “I felt the ache in my abdomen, the muscle closing up around the ragged scar.” (193)

The message, in the end, is equivocal, like so much of this book about a mixed bag of a life: the world goes on without us, but it heals too, like two sides of a wound remorselessly knitting themselves back together.  Would it be better any other way?

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