On the third page of We Are Not Ourselves, it is said that Big Mike lives in an apartment on whose walls the only piece of art is a painting of St. Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland. If not a friend to the world of fine art, Mike is a great friend to his fellow Irish immigrants in Woodside, Queens. On stools and from behind the bar, he holds forth on matters great and small, helping this one with marital advice and that one with a job. A man’s man with an over-the-top personality, he is never subtle, and author Matthew Thomas does not treat him with subtlety.
Mike’s wife is another striking character from this now-faded generation: intelligent, cynical, and occasionally cruel. Also an immigrant and also a drinker, she is angry and disappointed at her low station in life, but, like the growing length of ash on her cigarettes, she is something to behold. After Mike confesses to a big gambling loss, she takes retribution by choosing someone else to sponsor her citizenship. When the deed is unveiled, he is flabbergasted.
“Don’t ever love anyone,” she tells her daughter, Eileen. “All you’ll do is break your own heart.”
Young Eileen becomes a caretaker to her mother, whose disappointment leads to full-blown alcoholism. The girl is initiated in the rites of drinking too much and pouring out one’s woes in bitter streams of words. Like many Irish-American women, Eileen goes into nursing, a profession unequal to her worldly ambition, which, after she marries, seeks expression in her own family.
So go the first 50 or so pages of one of the most celebrated novels of the year. Filled with countless authentic touches from the outer boroughs—the roads, the towns, the shifting mix of ethnicities—and from the periods through which the story passes, We Are Not Ourselves is a testament to the author’s patient in-gathering of details. The social history underlying this book is well-considered and worthy of attention; but the accumulation of facts, at times, feels defensive, and adds to the novel’s halting progress. After a bold beginning, the mood and pace are sometimes more reminiscent of an Irish funeral than an Irish wake.
The family at the center of this debut work is atypical in some respects. Eileen and her husband Ed Leary have only one child. Ed is a scientist with an academic career, teaching at Bronx Community College. He puts his students before himself and rejects offers of more money and prestige elsewhere. But Eileen is still the daughter of immigrants. The American Dream of a big house and a fast car holds a mighty grip on her imagination. And the consolation prize of a middle-class life full of integrity is hard to savor when your heart is still shopping for a four-bedroom Tudor in Westchester.
The other perspective character, besides Eileen, is her son Connell. He is the smartest kid in class and, outside of it, one of the most despised. With a best friend named Farshid, he grows up in a different Queens than the one Eileen knew as a child, which doesn’t preserve him from reckless, childlike versions of the petty bigotries that help shape his mother’s thinking. If there is a major flaw in this novel, it is here: A facile moralizing creeps into several moments of ethnic and racial tension. A writer from an earlier generation might have inserted a great deal of sex to make his characters come alive; this one seems to think his characters would seem unreal without repeated dabs of crude bigotry.
Ed, however, is far too high-minded for such nonsense. He dislikes the Christmas windows on Fifth Avenue, insists on offering support to underdogs, and seems to actually believe that there is no reason to move out of Queens, while all around them Eileen sees a rising brown tide of hostile immigrants. A devout Mets fan, Ed would be too good to believe except that he is mentally slipping, and, rather sadly, he seems to know it. What begins as a big ethnic novel turns, early on, into a family drama driven by Eileen’s will to get out of Queens and Ed’s fast-developing Alzheimer’s.
Matthew Thomas develops numerous excellent scenes throughout. Some of the early repartee between Ed and Eileen delightfully captures the tension in their not-always-harmonious views on life. One night, when Eileen is short-staffed at the hospital, she finds herself searching the floor for a lost pill only to discover her bed-ridden patient transfixed by the sight of her attractive posterior. As Connell grows up, he cluelessly backs himself into adulthood, unconsciously undoing much of the effort expended on his behalf by others.