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It is often said that Alice McDermott writes about ordinary people living ordinary lives. This was the case in “Charming Billy,” winner of the National Book Award. It is, perhaps, even more true in her latest novel, “Someone.” Published in 2013, the story centers around Marie, an Irish-catholic woman living in Brooklyn between the wars. McDermott says she felt drawn to Marie precisely because she’s a character often overlooked in literature. McDermott challenged herself to find the remarkable in a seemingly unremarkable life. According to critics, she succeeded. For our August Readers’ Review: “Someone.”
Excerpt from “Someone” by Alice McDermott. Copyright 2013 by Alice McDermott. Reprinted here by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. All rights reserved.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Alice McDermott's sixth book, "Someone," is a quiet novel, more concerned with character than plot. As one reviewer wrote, it doesn't seem to be about anything except a whole life. The book traces the story of Marie, an Irish Catholic woman growing up in Brooklyn in the 1930s. Ritually evocative of a specific time and place, the novel captures many of life's universal experiences of joy and tragedy.
MS. DIANE REHMHere in the studio to talk about Alice McDermott's "Someone," Paul Elie of Georgetown University, Maureen Corrigan, book critic and author, and Brando Skyhorse, novelist and writer in residence at George Washington University. Do join us. 800-433-8850. Send us your email to email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. It's good to see all of you.
MS. MAUREEN CORRIGANThank you, Diane.
MR. BRANDO SKYHORSEGood morning.
MR. PAUL ELIEGlad to be here, Diane.
REHMGood to have you. Maureen Corrigan, this novel touched my heart so immediately and so profoundly. From your point of view, what's it about?
CORRIGANIt's about the still center of a turning world. It's about one woman who is ordinary, as you said in your introduction, which makes it a hard sell as a novel. Because when you say, well, it's a novel about an ordinary woman, everybody's already moved into the suspense fiction aisle of the book store.
CORRIGANBut it's about a woman who lives an ordinary life as the world around her changes radically. She's an Irish Catholic, growing up between the wars and everything that she understands as a given, in terms of sexual behavior, in terms of the Catholic Church, all of that will be changed utterly by the time she becomes old herself.
REHMAnd Brando Skyhorse, what Alice McDermott has done with time in this book is extraordinary. How did you come to that shift of time in the novel?
SKYHORSEYeah. I wish I knew how she did it, because it's like, you know, I feel a bit like sort of a journeyman magician reading like, you know, Houdini or something. I mean, the way in which she sort of shifts effortlessly back and forth. You know, it's extraordinary. And just to kind of touch back a little bit on what you were saying about how would you describe this book? You know, it's an ordinary woman, story of an ordinary woman told in an extraordinary way. And to me, I've really gravitated to those types of stories, because I feel that's what good art does.
SKYHORSEYou know, the lead singer of Talking Heads, David Byrne, said the goal of art is to raise the banal to the sublime. That's what this book does, and again, I mean, all of the things she does. You know, language, metaphor, time in particular. It might be a little tricky for some readers, but I would certainly encourage them to just stick with it, because there's clearly a method to this methodology. And again, I'm still trying to parse it out. Maybe I can find that out here today from you guys.
REHMWhat did you think, Paul Elie?
ELIEWell, my introduction to Alice's work came with her novel "At Weddings and Wakes," probably 20 years ago now. And prior to reading the novel, I read an interview with her in Publisher's Weekly. And she told the interviewer that her models were Nabokov and Virginia Woolf. And that was surprising to me, because we think of her as a writer of Irish Catholic New York. Traditional material so that her models were these arch modernists who do all sorts of adventurous things with time and structure. Clued me in early to the kind of rearranging of episodes that is at the heart of this novel.
REHMThe rearranging of episodes. Spell that out, Paul.
ELIESo, for example, we learn fairly early in the book that Marie has daughters. We see her in old age before we see her giving birth to her first child. We see her in a nursing home in a chapter that precedes a chapter that must have happened 20 years earlier. But it's not -- there's no sense of a game or trickery about it. You're reading along and it feels utterly natural, even though it's quite unusual.
REHMDid you find yourself, at any point, Maureen, confused?
CORRIGANNo. I did not. Which is part of Alice McDermott's gift. I think what Paul said is very true. There's never that sense, with her writing, of look at me. Pay attention to this little gimmick I'm pulling off here. And one of the other things that strikes me about this novel is how much -- what a role silence plays in this novel. Major events of Marie's life are passed over in silence, such as the death of her father for the most part. The death of her husband.
CORRIGANAnd again, it's not like that silence is surrounded by neon signs, where you're aware of the fact that McDermott is deliberately leaving something out to create an effect. It's almost the way, in our own lives, when things hit us very deeply, there are no words.
REHMNo words. And yet, she finds the words when her heart is broken.
SKYHORSEYeah, I mean, it's really, just exquisite in so many ways. I'm thinking in terms of like passages from the book. I know we're sort of like asked to choose our sort of favorite passages. This isn't necessarily about romantic heartbreak, but sort of like a longing for like a land that's long since gone. There's this early part in the book where the mother's talking about County Clare and we get this very simple, very elegant description, which is just like four or five lines.
SKYHORSEThere's a burned taste to the air at home, she said, not for the first time. A taste of wet ashes and doused fire. It can make you believe, she said, that you live in the permanent aftermath of some nearby sorrow. Somewhere in the vicinity, you're always thinking, someone's house has recently burned to the ground. My God. You know, but, and again, so like I think, from the early, you know, just from the outset, you know, themes of loss, of longing, of heartbreak, it's palpable.
SKYHORSEIt's there on every single page. And these sort of like little detours, not really detours. She's constructing this very elaborate setup. This very elaborate, these elaborate descriptions that kind of get you to the heart of this character and the heart of this family, really.
REHMAnd you know what was so interesting about the paragraph you read. It comes after Marie sort of describes her mother as not terribly talkative. And then comes this brilliant passage.
SKYHORSEYeah, and then you get this sort of like eruption, basically.
REHMAs she remembers her own life. But there is heartbreak in the book for Marie. She thinks she's going to marry this man to whom she's given certain sexual liberties.
ELIEAnd then, when she does marry her husband, Tom Cumeford, (sp?) some years later, you called it a quiet novel in the introduction, and that's true. But there are big bold emotions in the book, too. So when she -- having been spurned by Walter, sometime later, she winds up marrying Tom and she's a bold one, she says of herself. And in a quiet way, but in an unmistakable way, she relishes the fact that she really has found love. And, you know, Walter Hartnett be damned.
ELIEAnd she relishes the fact that sexual experience would be hers and the things that are known but scarcely discussed in Irish Catholic Brooklyn are now part of her own experience. It's quiet, but there's a tremendous satisfaction she takes in being a married woman after all that she's been through.
REHMShe is her own person. And you realize that from early on.
CORRIGANYou do. I think about the title of this book, which is not a title that grabs you. "Someone." It, to me, it's very Irish Catholic, because it doesn't put on airs. And Marie doesn't put on airs. I mean, that's a phrase that I heard all the time growing up Irish Catholic.
CORRIGANAbsolutely. Irish Catholic in Queens, New York, and I'm about the same age as Alice McDermott. So, I feel, of course, some of my attraction to this book is that shared cultural reference. But the worst thing you could say about anyone, in my neighborhood growing up, is he or she puts on airs. This book doesn't put on airs. Its main character doesn't put on airs. But yes, her strength seeps through. I love what Marie says to her own daughters later on, when she's a middle aged mother in talking about Walter Hartnett, the man who spurned her.
CORRIGANThe man who dumped her. She advises her own daughters to never get involved with a man who looks over your head as he's speaking to you. You know, and that's all she says to them about that whole painful love affair. But it's enough. A man who doesn't look into your eyes doesn't love you.
REHMTalk about Marie's brother. I love her brother.
SKYHORSEYeah, I mean, he is really, certainly one of the most interesting, and I would say unusual in the best sense characters that I've ever read. Here's a gentleman who's basically -- has a sort of whole life mapped out before him. And not to give too much away of the book, there's this incredibly catastrophic event that happens to him later in the text. And it was surprising to me at first, but you realize that Alice is such a pro. Everything is there on the page.
SKYHORSEJust to go back to what we were talking about with Walter, the despicable Walter, and then Tom, who she ends up with. The first meeting she has with Walter, he says, oh, there's something wrong with your eye. And that whole playing on sight. And immediately, within that one sentence, you know this is a doomed relationship. And then with Tom, the first time she meets Tom, she says, oh, well, I didn't have my glasses on. You know, and again, so it's all communicated, it's all laid out.
SKYHORSEI don't remember the specific part where we're introduced to Gene, but I'm assuming that wherever that is in the novel, there is something telegraphed that says this is the kind of character he is and this is what's waiting for him down the road.
REHMBrando Skyhorse. He's the author of "Take This Man: A Memoir" and the novel, "The Madonnas of Echo Park." He is currently writer in residence at George Washington University. Short break here. We'll be right back.
REHMAnd welcome back. This is our Readers' Review for the month. Alice McDermott's beautiful novel "Someone." I hope you'll join us, 800-433-8850. Paul Elie is here in the studio. He's senior fellow with the Berkeley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University. He's the author of "The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage" and "Reinventing Bach." Maureen Corrigan is the book critique for NPR's Fresh Air and the author of the newly released book "So We Read On: How the Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why it Endures."
REHMAnd Brando Skyhorse. He too is an author. "The Madonnas of Echo Park" received the 2011 Penn Hemingway Award. I hope you'll join us. Just before the break, Maureen, we were talking about Marie's brother who almost, from the moment he was born, his mother hopes, wants him to become a priest.
CORRIGANYes. It's one of the highest honors to have a vocation like that especially in pre-Vatican II Catholic culture to have a son who enters the priesthood. I mean, you would just be bursting with quiet pride in the neighborhood if your son were a priest. But Father Gabe doesn't stay in the priesthood. And it's -- again his exit is passed over pretty much in silence when Gabe meets a parishioner who still addresses him as Father Gabe. He lets him know he's left the priesthood and he says, it just wasn't for me. And that's all the information you're going to get out of him.
CORRIGANYears later, Marie's grown daughters refer to their Uncle Gabe as Father Gabe Blade (sp?) . I mean, they make jokes about the fact that they suspect his sexuality was the reason why he left the priesthood. And I love what Marie says to her daughters when they're making those jokes. She says, you see the world differently than I do. I mean, she would never want to even step into that territory of speculating about her brother's sexuality. She grew up in a different time. She still lives in a different time than they do.
ELIEIt's so clear, reading the novel, that it's a novel (unintelligible) time even though the style is very contemporary. So Gabe, having left the priesthood, is a suspicious character and a failure basically in the eyes of many people in that community, Irish Catholic Brooklyn and Long Island. But what is so striking about the novel is that he has -- let's not necessarily say a vocation but he has a role that he plays that's really significant.
ELIEMarie, early in the novel, takes a job at a funeral home. And she characterizes herself as the consoling angel, the person who's there at the worst moments in her neighbors' lives when they've lost a member of the family. But as I read the novel I thought, well, maybe this is what Gabe's vocation is. Really, he's a consoling angel who's there at various difficult moments in Marie's life and that his presence is just as significant as a brother and companion as it would have been had he turned out to be a priest.
REHMYou're absolutely right. I agree with that. What do you think?
SKYHORSEYeah, I think that's an absolutely astute and spot on description in terms of being an angel because there's this heartbreaking scene towards the end where the mother is basically on her deathbed. And she keeps asking, like, am I home? Am I in Ireland? Am I in Brooklyn? And it's Gabe who's the one who basically lifts her out of the bed and takes her downstairs and says basically, like, look, you're here. This is home. You're in Brooklyn, and so literally being delivered onto these streets, this, like, area that she's known her entire life. Yeah, that's his role. His role is basically to be the shepherd for the family because that's his goal. That's his path.
REHMThe neighborhood and the time period are so important in each of the different time periods we read about, Maureen.
CORRIGANBy the time Gabe carries his ailing elderly mother out on the streets of Brooklyn, it's a different Brooklyn. It's a Brooklyn where you have to worry about crime and where people don't know each other. You know, I think of another great Irish Catholic writer when I read this book. I think about Pete Hamill who wrote a great memoir years ago called "A Drinking Life" about growing up in Brooklyn, you know, as a child around World War II. And he took it forward.
CORRIGANAnd one of the things Hamill talked about was how the life of the streets just got sucked inward the minute television appeared. And I feel like that's a big change here. When this novel opens right after World War I, everybody's out on the street.
CORRIGANAnd by the time Marie -- well, Marie moves away from the neighborhood but by the time Marie's elderly mother is almost gone, there's no life out on the streets except life you have to be afraid of.
REHMYou know, it's interesting, before I go on I want to remind you, you can share your thoughts via Twitter. You can give us your thoughts about the book "Someone" by Alice McDermott. Use the hash tag drreads. Otherwise if you'd like to call us, join the conversation, 800-433-8850. I was thinking about 1954 which is the first year my family had television. So, I mean, radio was what we all listened to. But you're absolutely right. Television brought people into the house and sort of stopped playing on the streets, instead making sure you were there in time for Milton Berle or Ed Sullivan or one of those programs.
REHMBut Alice McDermott got so many details right. And I'm thinking about what you said, Paul, about her working in that funeral parlor. There was the mother of the funeral parlor owner who lived upstairs on the top floor. And he, the owner, asked Marie if she would, from time to time, go upstairs to visit his mother. And what she found there was remarkable companionship.
ELIEAnd to think that you had several generations of families living in those houses in Brooklyn and that you could go up another floor and essentially go to a different generation by going to the top floor. I think that's probably connected to what Maureen said about the change that happened when television came on. I live in Brooklyn and to see the neighborhood now, the house is mainly inhabited by single families. And then you realize that you had two or three generations.
ELIEThe same time that television came in after the war, a lot of people moved out of Brooklyn to Long Island. So we see the younger generation, you know, living an hour's car ride away or 45 minutes. And that certainly changed the texture of life for that Irish Catholic community that you had to pay a visit to your grandparents on the weekend.
ELIEIs that right, Maureen, having -- you grew up in Sunnyside?
CORRIGANWell, my -- nobody in my family was quite mobile enough to make it to Long Island. We were all still in Queens. But I know what you're talking about. Certainly a lot of the kids I grew up with, they migrated outward. You know, that -- I would just like to say, Diane, that scene that you mentioned about Marie having to go upstairs in the funeral parlor to sit with the women who keep the funeral parlor director's mother company. It's such a wonderful scene because it includes an element that I don't think we've mentioned yet.
CORRIGANThis is also -- it's a humorous novel. It gets the wit of this life...
REHMThe gossip, yeah.
CORRIGAN...the gossip. And in that scene, that's the scene that I picked out to read because all -- the women are commenting on the dearly departed below.
CORRIGANBut they're not saying much. It's with the look of an eye, a finger to a nose.
REHMWhy don't you read that for us.
CORRIGANYeah, she says it better than I do.
CORRIGANOkay. This is Marie describing this company of women on the upper floor of the funeral parlor. Recollections were raised, sorted, compiled. If there was a good story attached to the life of the dead, whatever woman among them had it would be given the floor. And whatever part of the story was deemed perhaps too delicate for the old lady's ears or more likely mine, would be acted out with a series of gestures and nods and sudden silences that I quickly came to be able to interpret.
CORRIGANA finger held to the side of a nose indicated a deception. A pantomime bottle raised to the mouth meant there was a problem with drink. The rubbing of the thumb and forefinger meant money problems. Eyebrows raised and words falling off into a long nod indicated sex.
REHMYou know, it made me think of coming home on a Sunday afternoon -- I have a huge family here in Washington and coming home on a Sunday afternoon and finding my aunts and uncles all sitting in the living room. And they would all have little stories to tell. And I was fascinated to hear them. Marie grows from that encounter with those older women. She feels her own personhood in those encounters, I think.
CORRIGANYeah, and life becomes more nuanced.
CORRIGANThe dead aren't just praised piously. Their lives were complicated.
SKYHORSEWell, that's also where -- sorry to leap in here but that's the currency of the neighborhood too. I mean, I feel it's like this was like getting a scene at, like, you know, their neighborhood stock exchange. Like this is where, like, all the sort of (word?), the gossip was, like, exchanged.
SKYHORSEMy grandmother was sort of like -- I didn't grow up in Brooklyn but I spent a lot of time there. I grew up in Los Angeles and we had our sort of L.A. version of that. And my grandmother was basically this woman here. Like, you know, she got all the information and she traded with people down the street. And that kind of neighborhood currency is so important in neighborhoods like this.
ELIEAnd yet the beautiful thing about this novel is that the gore of the neighborhood is not romanticized. People labor under the stories that are told about them. There's an amazing episode in which a priest eludes to a mother of three who has a problem with drink. And the reason he does this is that he sees her ducking into the candy store before church and buying a package of mints. And it emerges that she's buying the package of mints to break a dollar bill so then she can distribute the change among the children for them to put in the collection at the church.
ELIEBut out of this misapprehension grows a story such as the stories that those ladies tell up at the top floor of the funeral home that tags this woman for her entire life as a secret alcoholic.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." I want to open the phones, welcome people into the conversation, 800-433-8850. First to Paul in Denton, Texas. Hi, you're on the air.
PAULDiane, I'm 78 years old and I'm just calling to tell you how much contempt I have for a god, if there is one. My mother was an Irish Catholic. I grew up in Queens. And she would lumber down and make (word?) devotions and was so devout. Never owned a car, never owned a phone and was never married. She had an illegitimate child and God treated us so bad. You have no concept of how bad that her life was. And I just wanted to say that I know about being an Irish Catholic and I know about, you know, that devotion and how people are with that and it's so...
REHMInteresting points, Maureen.
CORRIGANYeah, you know, the church has a very troubled legacy, right, especially for people of my generation and older. I went back to my grammar school reunion.
CORRIGANGrammar school because the school was closing in a small corner of Queens near Calvary Cemetery where Alice McDermott makes reference to it in this novel. A lot -- about seven of us from the class of 1969 came back but a lot of us didn't who were still in the vicinity. And I think among those of us who came back, you'd find still devout Catholics and people who had fallen away and people like your caller who are very angry at the church.
REHMIndeed. All right. Let's go to Joan in Hazelwood, Mo. You're on the air.
JOANHi. I just called because I love Alice McDermott. And I am an Irish Catholic and I grew up in a big family. And I was -- had grandmothers and aunts. And I just had a poor working class wonderful life. And I'm 80 years old now and I just read her book, Alice McDermott's book. I read all of her books. I love her. And I told my daughter she had a new one. And I have five daughters and they all love her. So they were all reading it. With just -- to me it's just a loving book. I loved it. That's all I have...
REHMThat's a great way to describe it, Paul, a loving book.
ELIENo kidding. You know, the title is "Someone." And Maureen talked about the title a little earlier in the broadcast, but I think what it means is that in this world everyone is someone. And that's what you feel in Alice's fiction. Everybody is someone in her fiction. And what is love but that, that everybody matters.
REHMAnd, you know, I think immediately, as you say that, even poor Walter -- poor Walter is someone. The funeral parlor owner is someone. He's kind to Alice. The funeral owner's mother, 90 years old, and she moves on the sofa and pats it so that Marie will sit next to her. They're all someone. And they're all each important characters in this book.
SKYHORSEYeah, you realize -- I'm thinking in terms about the title -- I don't think we've discussed this yet -- but it's basically -- it's sort of a key scene at the end of part one where Gabe, sort of the angel, is sort of escorting his sister. And she's undergone this, like, heavy blow with Walter who I choose not to like because I just think he's -- you guys can be epithetic but I just -- I can't get onboard. And she's walking him around. And she says, you know, who's going to love me? And he just says, you know, someone. Someone will. And you can read that moment again in, like, two very specific ways. And the fact that there's that duality is what makes Alice's work so wonderful.
REHMAnd we'll take a short break here. When we come back, more of your calls, comments, email. I look forward to hearing from you.
REHMAnd welcome back. I want to read to you an email from Bob in Jacksonville, Florida, who says, I believe Alice McDermott to be the most profoundly thoughtful and moving novelist writing today. She shares with the ancient Greek playwrights the view that life is essentially tragic. And suggests that love and faith are all we've got to see us through. Do your guests think this tragic outlook may prevent her from attracting a wider following?
CORRIGANThat's an interesting theory. You know, as you were reading that, Diane, I was thinking, what I think she shares with the ancient Greeks is this sense of the fadedness of life. This novel opens with a character named Pegeen who brags, kind of, to the young Marie that she's going to deliberately fall the next day and attract the help of a handsome man. You know, that's her plan. Well, Pegeen falls, but she falls accidentally and she dies.
CORRIGANAnd at the very end of the novel, Marie is still thinking about Pegeen. So many events in this novel, so many meetings, they happen by chance, by fate almost. And I feel like there's that sense of design in McDermott's work.
REHMHow do you see it?
SKYHORSEYeah, I mean, there's certainly a novel that's punctuated by tragedy, but I think, as Paul was also saying, I also feel it's ultimately hopeful as well, and as your emailer astutely pointed out, love, faith, these are the sort of currents that we sort of have to like navigate in order to get to the places we want to be. But I think the thing that really makes Alice's work transcendent, and, you know, I use that word very deliberately, is empathy.
SKYHORSEAnd I think that her idea, and this is something that all great writers do. It's something that I look for in, you know, every student I work with, is does the writer have empathy for her characters? And she does. And you know, even as we were talking during the break, even for the, you know, less than attractive Walter, you know, she has enormous empathy for who he is and his circumstances. And so, I don't know. I think that Alice has already reached kind of a wide audience, hasn't she? I mean, it's pretty big. Yeah. So.
REHMShe has, indeed. And certainly with "Charming Billy" having won the National Book Award for that. Talk about Paul, her marriage.
ELIEIt's a portrait of a happy marriage. And really striking in that respect. I think, seen from the outside, the Irish Catholics of that period, seemed all just to pair off. You know, that everybody was going to get married or become a priest or a nun. And yet, that's not the way it's experienced from the inside. Marie and people like her felt tremendous gratitude that they had found someone, a life companion, to go through things with. All the more so in Marie's case, because of what she suffered from Walter Hartnett, the man who spurned her.
ELIESo, to see her fall in love with Tom, marry, they get to know each other as much after the marriage begins as before, to raise children. To take some risks together. It's very touching, because I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop because this is a contemporary novel. And then I'm -- I was moved that it didn't drop, that they carried on that way.
REHMShe has three daughters. And the youngest, toward the end of the novel, is how shall we put it? Maybe somewhat impatient with her mother, because her mother is gradually losing her faculties.
CORRIGANYes, and you know, it's -- again, this speaks to something that Brando was talking about at the beginning of the hour, that how does McDermott do it? Because all of a sudden, I feel as a reader, I slide into the daughter's perspective. I can understand, I can empathize, I have an elderly mother. Sometimes I'm impatient. I can empathize with her daughter's, come on, get with the program.
CORRIGANYou know, don't be so shocked that I'm calling Uncle Gabe gay. Of course he's gay. That sort of more contemporary voice coming in and judging Marie. But of course, the daughter hasn't lived Marie's life. She, in a way, she's judging from her own point of view. Everybody in this novel is limited. That's another thing that I think McDermott brilliantly dramatizes.
REHMLimited how? What do you mean?
CORRIGANLimited by the assumptions of their own time. By the world they grow up in. Limited by their lack of education, or, in some cases, in the more contemporary characters, by the education that's formed them. Limited and maybe -- yeah, limited, I think, mostly by their religion and the world view of that religion as the world around them changes. So, it’s not a, it's not like McDermott is wagging her finger and using that word, I feel, as a criticism, but we're all limited. And she dramatizes some of the limitations of everyone's world view.
REHMPaul, do you think that the Catholicism is what is the limiting factor here?
ELIETo a certain extent, there's a narrowness to the characters in their social life that has to do with their Catholic education and upbringing. But I think it's more complicated than that. Maureen talks about the limits of the characters and as I understand it, these characters all have a strong sense of their own limits, and yet of their own -- the ability to transcend those limits at particular moments also. Flannery O'Connor took the limits of human personality and made a whole Catholic aesthetic out of that.
ELIESaying we're all limited. We're all broken. Let's see what happens when you put a few of us limited creatures together and have at each other. And in a less lurid fashion, that's what's happening in this novel. These people are small in their ways, but grand in their ways, too. Capable of love, capable of (word?) acts of, you know, reaching out to each other with tenderness. Capable of writing wrongs. I see the two going on together.
REHMAll right. Let's go to Steven in Collinsville, Alabama. Hi there. You're on the air.
STEVENYes, you just stole my thunder. Limits and transcendence. My father was a southern Baptist minister and I grew up in South Carolina, working class neighborhood. His mother had a second grade education. She was born in 1900, because her father told her -- she had nine brothers, said you come home. You gotta raise the boys. I spent a couple of years with her after my grandfather died and I was just thinking about the similarities of this fundamentalist and conservative Baptist Evangelical Church of God even touched, that she grew up in.
STEVENBut with those limits, there was this transcendence. And I was thinking about transcendence even before he brought the name up. The word. A couple of other things. At one time, I had committed to memory from "Charming Billy" the word in the arc of an unremarkable life, a life whose triumphs were ordinary enough, et cetera, et cetera. One of my regrets is, for the last couple of years, Alice McDermott has been at the Writer's Conference not too far from here, in Sewanee, Tennessee, at the University of the South.
STEVENAnd I wanted to get up -- I still hope that she comes back next year. One other quick thing. Ron Rash, he writes about Appalachia. The New York Times loves him, they love him in Europe. He has this tragic view of life. He addresses that in the Appalachian southern experience with universal themes. I think is comparable to Alice McDermott. Thanks for taking my call.
REHMInteresting. Thank you. Do you know Ron Rash?
ELIEThe name only. I don't know his work.
REHMYou don't know his work.
SKYHORSEBut I'll check it out, based on that recommendation.
SKYHORSEYeah. That's an incredibly astute description. And I think again, yeah. I mean, you know, these themes that we talk about, like I think the reason we have these readers' reviews is that we kind of get in depth into like issues of religion or whatever. But it's the characters and finding how these characters relate to people that we know in our own lives. Their flaws, their limitations. Yeah, it's extraordinary.
REHMWe have an email from NK, who says, it doesn't require much elaboration, but don't fail to mention the sensory richness of Alice McDermott's writing. In this novel, almost every sentence conveys the sights, sounds, smells, tastes of life in Brooklyn. McDermott is a master of showing, not telling.
CORRIGANShe is. She is. And again, without nudging the reader in the ribs and saying, look at what I'm doing. When Marie first gets her job at the funeral parlor, one thing that just stays with me is that the funeral director tells her to go to, I think it's Abraham and Strauss, a local department store.
CORRIGANAnd talk to the salesgirl there and buy five good wool dresses in subdued colors. I can feel those dresses. I can feel the weight of their fabric and the richness of their dark colors.
REHMAnd she was so excited, because, for the most part, I mean, if she got to buy one dress, she was happy. But to be given the opportunity to buy five dresses at one time.
SKYHORSEWell, the funeral director, whose name is Fagan, which is again, what a wonderful...
SKYHORSE...what a wonderful name. And so he gives her a copy of I believe it was David Copperfield.
SKYHORSEAnd then you see that little scene where she's like, the volumes slip into the empty space and it would remain just so my 10 years at Fagan's until I returned the book to him on my last day, married by then and expecting my first child. Apologizing that I just kept losing the thread of his tail. How much information is conveyed in that one specific, precise sentence? So many details. So many layers.
ELIEThere's a moment, late in the novel, and it's not a long novel, where Gabe has been to Suffolk, which means he's been to the mental hospital. And that's the euphemism for it. And the family live on Long Island, and they typically use the back, kind of, garage door of their house to enter and exit. But when Gabe is brought to their place, he's brought in through the front door. And one of the children asks about this. And the explanation is that they don't want Gabe to feel that because he's been in the asylum that he's now a guest who has to be shown in by -- secretly by the back door.
ELIEAnd in that detail, about the front door versus the back door, you get a whole generation's worth of manners and the way manners are used to preserve a person's dignity in that society. Just in that detail, about which door Gabe is brought into the house.
SKYHORSEShades of Faulkner there too. That sort of, that arrangement of front door, back door. Who has permission? Who is allowed access to these sort of doors? The sort of entire construct of this sort of little society. All these sort of rules, which everybody knows, but nobody really articulates out loud. So...
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go now to Andrew in San Antonio, Texas. You're on the air.
ANDREWThank you, Diane. I've been trying to get on here for a long time. You're a national treasure.
ANDREWOne of my friends, getting to the topic of Christian education, one of my friends, she went to a Christian academy. She was raised a Baptist. And every text I get, it's kind of a jumble of letters. I can make out what she's trying to say. And she told me that she only got up to like a seventh grade level of education. And I took a look at a story she was writing, and I could barely make out what she was trying to say. There was barely any sentence structure.
ANDREWThere was -- her grammar was totally out of this world and spelling was forget it. I'm appalled that this is allowed to happen.
REHMBut surely, that happens very rarely.
CORRIGANYou know, one of Alice McDermott's great strengths is that she doesn't just take pot shots at easy targets like the Catholic Church, especially pre-Vatican two. She shows you the beauty of that community, the attractions of that community and that world. Again, as well as limitations, that word I keep coming back to. So, you never get that sort of dismissive tone in her work.
REHMAnd that goes back to the front door and Suffolk and the kindness with which the family regards Gabe. He has suffered, clearly, a nervous breakdown. Perhaps his own disappointment in himself as much as what has happened to him in seminary that turned him away. She treats that with such gentleness, and yet we understand it.
ELIESo the father, Tom, who's the brother-in-law of Gabe, who's had the nervous breakdown, it falls to him to find a way to communicate this to the children. What's happened without evading things, but without reducing them either. He expressed a kind of contempt for psychiatrists. So instead, he tells the children that Gabe has had a big wave wash over him, like the ones they felt at Jones Beach. And so this is street poetry. This man finds a way to communicate that something dramatic has happened to Gabe without being clinical or dismissive or stereotyping him.
REHMShe is fabulous. I have to say, and I'm not going to speak for you all, but I finished reading this book and came in and said to everyone here, I just loved this book. And I would highly recommend it. Brando Skyhorse, Maureen Corrigan, Paul Elie, thank you all so much for being here today.
SKYHORSEThank you, Diane.
CORRIGANThank you, Diane.
ELIEThank you, Diane.
REHMAnd for reading the book, "Someone," by Alice McDermott. For our next "Readers' Review," on September 24th, Toni Morrison's book, "The Bluest Eye," tells the story of a young African-American girl who thinks blonde hair and blue eyes are the key to happiness. I hope you'll join me for that discussion. Thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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