Man hands on misery to man in QueensDec 8, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 13 • By DAVID SKINNER
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.
Classic style for the modern temperamentNov 3, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 08 • By DAVID SKINNER
Vladimir Nabokov, who knew a thing or two about the subject, once wrote, “Style is not a tool, it is not a method, it is not a choice of words alone.
David Skinner, aging jock.Sep 8, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 48 • By DAVID SKINNER
Twice now, as I enter my forties, I have picked up a new sport. First I took up tennis, which I have always enjoyed watching and is known to be a game one can play well into the gray-haired years. And a couple months ago I started playing Gaelic football, a bruising, I hope not bone-crushing, but definitely high-speed, um, melee more than an actual sport, which perhaps no one of any age should play and about which I knew almost nothing.
David Skinner, dedicated dishwasherJul 21, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 42 • By DAVID SKINNER
Recently I was fingerprinted for a work ID. Sitting at a little table across from a gentleman who, like many federal employees, wore his ID badge and metro card around his neck, I concentrated on rolling my right thumb just so over the scanner between us, from the leftmost edge of the nail to the flat, fleshy center before lifting straight up. Then I did it again. And again. And again.
David Skinner in the eye of the beholderMar 31, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 28 • By DAVID SKINNER
In our dining room, there was a small glass-top table that looked like an old-fashioned pushcart. On it my mother kept several small plants that made a mess of the glass top as they shed their leaves and, when watered, dripped soil from the holes at the bottom of their pots. To clean the table you had to remove all the plants, wipe down the glass, clean off the bottoms of the pots, and return them to the glass. It was a chore we always put off, except when Aunt Eileen was coming to visit.
David Skinner, cheering section.Dec 16, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 14 • By DAVID SKINNER
I was on the sidelines at my daughter’s 11-and-under travel soccer game. It had been a successful season, but today they were being outmuscled by a very physical team from Warrenton. With a strong wind blowing against them and only one substitute on the bench, the Alexandria Heat were on the wrong side of a 5-0 rout.
From the January 19, 2004 issue: The Dean camp's Internet impresario.Jan 19, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 18 • By DAVID SKINNER
IF HOWARD DEAN'S VAUNTED Internet campaign has a guru, it's arguably Howard Rheingold, author of "The Virtual Community," "Smart Mobs," and other works of techno-sociology. Rheingold, once called the "first citizen of the Internet," established himself during the early '90s as the leading proponent of the idea that the Internet would have profound social consequences.
From the December 22, 2003 issue: David Skinner, death of the party.Dec 22, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 15 • By DAVID SKINNER
IN ONE CHRISTMAS MEMORY of mine all the kids and parents are finishing dessert. I light a cigarette. A particularly outspoken relative, who's been bossing the conversation all night, says he's read that cigarette smoke can damage children's hearing. I reply, "No more than the voices of opinionated old men."
For the next four years, the blowhard refuses to attend any family function where I might make an appearance.
They don't make TV specials with scenes like the ones that fill my Christmas memories (or, to be fair, with characters like me).
The prestigious Booker Prize goes to Peter Finlay's silly, but anti-American, "Vernon God Little."11:00 PM, Dec 8, 2003 • By DAVID SKINNER
WEEKS BEFORE British flash mobs were quickening to the rings of their cell phones, barking furiously in the steps of President George W. Bush as he visited London, the Booker Prize committee sent its own signal regarding the United States of America. But instead of a thousand shouts and protest signs, the judges condensed their message into three words: "Vernon God Little."
The "Tell Us the Truth" tour hits Washington, with Janeane Garofalo, Tom Morello, Billy Bragg, Steve Earle, and other sages.11:00 PM, Nov 25, 2003 • By DAVID SKINNER
THE FIRST THING I noticed coming through the doors of the 9:30 Club was a button on the shoulder bag of the woman in front of me. "Regime Change 2004," it said. Next was the long banner hanging behind blues singer Lester Chambers on stage.
"Tell Us the Truth," the banner read in tall capital letters.
But, no, no one was demanding information. The primary task of the Tell Us the Truth Tour is to sound the alarm for media diversity. This I learned from the website, not the show.
The New Republic screens "Shattered Glass" and holds a Q&A about Stephen Glass, the movie, and the magazine.6:00 AM, Oct 31, 2003 • By DAVID SKINNER
THE NEW REPUBLIC and its editor-in-chief Marty Peretz, along with Lions Gate Films, hosted a screening of the new movie "Shattered Glass" in Washington Thursday night.