After This

by Alice McDermott

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 279 pp., $24

Alice McDermott's new novel at times resembles the good manners of its heroine, Mary Keane, reticently avoiding any salacious or melodramatic interest in its characters. It positions the story several degrees from the height of drama and is so underwritten that several of the wonders and calamities it contains are delivered almost as asides.

The central character, Mary Keane, meets the man she is going to marry; but this particular scene is a mere squib next to the longer evocation of a bad date she has on the same day with an eager suitor she most certainly does not want to marry. Later in the novel John Keane, Mary's husband, experiences great pain in his leg and orders his sons to jerry-rig a system of pullies, involving books and an army boot, to offset the agony with additional pain. He might die like this, John thinks. But no, he won't, the author mentions in passing, and the episode is all but forgotten, until many pages later the cause of his pain is explained in another underhyped report.

In After This McDermott has built her own literary contraption, one designed for delayed gratification and hinged to the reader's upended sense that what is right in front of him may, like small talk at a funeral, have little to do with what is important. The word "here" plays an important and ironic role, with McDermott using it to introduce the new into the familiar. Consider the brief passage in which Mary Keane meets her future husband as she is having lunch:

And here, of all things, was desire again. . . . Here was the boudoir air of respectable Schrafft's, with its marble counters and pretty lamps and lunchtime bustle (ten minutes until she should be back at her desk), perfume and smoke, with the war over and another life begun and mad April whipping through the streets again. And here she was at thirty, just out of church (a candle lit every lunch hour, although the war was over), and yearning now with every inch of herself to put her hand to the worn buckle at the stranger's waist, a palm to his smooth belly. A man she'd never see again. Good luck.

"Here," like "this" in the title, evokes what cannot be simply pointed out, what is not right here. And set against such explicit though misleading instructions to the reader's attention are a series of epochal shifts at the novel's major junctures. From Mary Keane's singlehood the novel jumps to her in maternal form, at the beach, watching her three children playing, another one on the way. And within its episodes--such as the news that John Keane won't die in his bedroom, his leg suspended by rope--the future is apt to be suddenly announced, without fanfare, like some kitchen-table gossip--"You know what happened to him, right?"--though more gently.

"Here" for Alice McDermott is, once again, Queens and Long Island and its Irish Catholic tribe of middle-class families. In 1998, she delivered the quintessential portrait of this community in Charming Billy, through her tracing of the life and death of an incurable alcoholic, one blessed with the gift of gab and great stores of kindness besides.

In After This, Mary Keane is likable and sympathetic, a woman defined by her obligations, but not fascinating, a gateway character, a good example of McDermott in her sensibility mode, where she is quietly unerring. But after beginning with Mary's delicate perceptions, the novel slowly builds until McDermott seems to be in the hunt for much bigger game with Mary's difficult husband, her children, and her noodge of a friend, Pauline.

Comprising the stories of two generations of Keanes, After This is, however, decidedly not a family saga. Though history intervenes, sending one of Mary's sons, Jacoby, into the Vietnam war (this chapter having the slowest pulse of any in the book), familial preoccupation with the kind of people our loved ones are and are becoming define its author's major concern. But only when the children are verging on adulthood does McDermott leave their parents behind and presume to describe their lives in a separate light. This shift in perspective introduces some of the novel's best writing, as the reader follows Annie, the literary daughter, to England for study, and Michael, the bright troublemaker, to teachers' college and his favorite hangout, a dive that would make most dives seem respectable.

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.

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