In a 2006 review of Alice McDermott’s novel After This, New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani wrote: “Ms. McDermott gives us an affecting meditation on the consolations and discontents of family life — the centripetal and centrifugal forces that bind husbands and wives, parents and children together and fling them ineluctably apart.”
That astute observation applies to all of her brilliant work. Alice McDermott is a master at the craft, an author who never wastes a single word. Her novels are not long (most are under 300 pages), but are packed with penetrating insights into family, loss of innocence, dreams and disillusion.
Born in Brooklyn, NY, Alice McDermott is the author of six novels: A Bigamist’s Daughter (1982), That Night (1987), At Weddings and Wakes (1992), Charming Billy (1998), Child of My Heart: A Novel (2002) and After This (2006).
McDermott is best known for Charming Billy, winner of an American Book Award and the National Book Award in 1999. In an interview with National Public Radio, McDermott talked about the character, Billy, who is introduced to the reader at a dinner held in his honor after his funeral. “He died an alcoholic and the book explores his deep and fierce loyalty to the dream his early love represented,” she said. That dream centered on a girl from Ireland, who Billy fell deeply in love with and vowed to marry. His best friend told him a white lie about the girl when Billy asks what happened to her and why she failed to respond to his inquiries. The girl’s ghost haunts Billy all his life, even after he later finds out the harsh truth.
Speaking about Billy, McDermott said, “He’s that stereotypical lovable Irishman, drinks too much, puts his arm around you at 3 AM, when everyone else has gone home and with tears in his eyes, tells you how much he loves you. He’s a great guy but also he’s drinking himself to death and no one can stop him.”
Charming Billy is “ultimately a novel about faith, and what we believe in and, above all, what we choose to believe in. And I think that Billy in this community is someone who the people around him have to believe a romantic tale about…They need to make something more of his life.”
Her stories are rooted in the Long Island suburbs where McDermott grew up as an Irish-Catholic in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The themes of faith and loss run through McDermott’s work. Family members grow up yearning to break free, but them find themselves trapped by circumstances and loyalties, bound to a life they never envisioned. Billy is a dreamer who pines for his lost love in Ireland, while struggling to cope with his every-day existence.
There is a sense of duty and decency to her characters that, in spite of their flaws, evokes sympathy in the reader.
McDermott once described writing as an obsession. In a New York Times interview after That Night was published, she said, ”I suppose I don’t know any other way of living. Not even just making sense of my own life, as I think the narrator of my novel is trying to do with hers. But I just don’t know any other way of getting along in the world…When I’m not writing -and I have considered many times trying something else – I can’t make sense out of anything. I feel the need to make some sense and find some order, and writing fiction is the only way I’ve found that seems to begin to do that. Even if the story or the novel ends up saying there is no sense and there is no order, at least I’ve made that much of an attempt.”
Alice McDermott’s novels make sense out of the frailties and mysteries of family life.