The Magazine

Mary's Story

Or, the Good Woman of Long Island.

Oct 9, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 04 • By DAVID SKINNER
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In handling the private side of the public equation, McDermott is superb, as Mary Keane looks around for signs of grace in everyday life, never seeing any in the naming of her son Jacob after a fallen soldier her husband knew in World War II. Typically, but perfectly as well, Mary Keane objects to naming her son Jacob on the grounds that it's, well, a Jewish name, right? The search for grace in the case of Jacob comes up empty, with a veil drawn across its conclusion. The reader follows Jacob no further than the airplane ride taking him to war.

McDermott begins by offering acorns instead of oaks. On the first page, wind-kicked dust makes Mary Keane think of the trail of paper and whatnot blowing across the earth's surface, "the paper detritus that she had somewhere read, or had heard it said, trails armies, or was it (she had seen a photograph) the scraps of letter and wrappers and snapshots that blow across battlefields after all but the dead have fled?"

This is also the novel's distance from war, the jungles of Vietnam as encountered from the family's kitchen table. While this may make McDermott sound like a reluctant storyteller, in After This she remains in her realist mode and yet is more adventurous than usual, and the results are rarely sentimental, often humorous, and several times exquisite.

David Skinner is an assistant managing editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.