If you’re Irish, like me, the stories of your family loom large in your mind and weigh heavily on your shoulders. Everyone from grandparents to second cousins and even great aunts and uncles work together to form a personal mythology – a collection of saints and sinners, on two sides of the Atlantic, among whom you need to find your place. Perhaps those of us in this generation, first or second in this country, are swampled in the mire of this past more than those who came before us, as we have the mystery of the square mini-photos of housewives in horn-rimmed classes to look upon, the silent squeals of the children in the Super 8 films to wonder about. We are given tidbits in the chatter of our grandmothers, glimpses from the images found in shoeboxes, and we are left to fill in the blanks. What are we to do with this information?
If you are a writer, you might easily become preoccupied with it. There is so much there, and so much missing, that it all happily becomes fodder for blank pages. Alice McDermott, author of After This, said in an interview that we tell stories in order to make something more of life. These stories, she says, give us the faith that life is valuable, even when it might seem pathetic. The first-person narrator in her 1998 book, Charming Billy, is there, she says, to string together the various stories in her family and “make something of it.” Of the Billy in the book’s title, she says, “They love him so dearly and are so fond of him and have – they’ve watched him destroy himself – and it’s not enough for them to say, well, Billy’s had an unfortunate life. They need to make something more of his life. And they do that by telling stories about him.”
That is exactly what she seems to be doing in her most recent book, After This. I’m reading it at a steady pace, and thoroughly enjoying the characters and the language (which seems to fit easily into my own head, as though I was reading my own words), but I’m also starting to wonder what is going on. My husband asked me a simple question – What is it about? – and I found myself rattling off a few boring details. A man and a woman meet, get married, have kids, move to Long Island – and, oh yeah, they’re Irish (more like a sidenote here). What is happening in this novel? I wondered. Why am I not totally bored? There’s no charm and no Billy – these characters are rather dull people, forgotten even by the people in their own town, and yet I keep reading. Perhaps it is because McDermott is slowly revealing the mundane facts of a few typical lives, the ones of those who appear in the worn photos we stumble across at the bottom of our closets, and I am like the narrator in Charming Billy, left to make something of it.