I’ve just finished reading Alice McDermott’s That Night, a short novel about the devastating pain of first love. For all that the writing is as delicate as lace embroidery, it packs the punch of a gorilla. Set back in the 60s in suburban America, it recounts a battle royale that took place on otherwise respectable front lawns between the local fathers and a gang of supercharged adolescents whose leader has suddenly and inexplicably been banned from seeing his girlfriend. At the time of this legendary night, the narrator was a young girl, just approaching the threshold of puberty, curious enough to marvel at the violent, libidinal atmosphere that’s unleashed in such unlikely circumstances, young enough to witness the event with an innocent and uncomprehending eye. Yet this narrator is also, at the same time, a grown woman working through her own divorce, and the cleverness of McDermott’s narrative with its subtle and beautifully orchestrated shifts through the layers of time and her narrator’s multiple perspectives is to be wholly admired. It’s a little jewel of a narrative, compact, sparkly, multi-faceted and cut by a mastercraftswoman of the written word.
There is not a great deal of plot to this, and when I first began I have to admit that I wondered whether my attention would be held; I wasn’t certain that the quality of McDermott’s prose was sufficient in itself to sustain my interest in the delicate threads of narrative that she weaves together, but in fact I devoured it in a couple of sittings. McDermott examines all the events that lead up to that night, and all the events that spiral away from it, most of them, we must assume, being pure conjecture on the part of her child narrator, or embroidered out of overheard adult conversations whose sense is only reintroduced with the advent of adulthood. It is a simple tale, this, about a teenage romance abruptly ended with a teenage pregnancy, ‘for in these matters, it was well accepted at the time, the girl must disappear and the hoodlum boy never know.’ But it’s also a brilliant evocation of a lost age, when children meant everything to women, when their entire sense of self was invested in their capacity to reproduce and to keep a smart home (one family lives in the basement so that the gorgeously decorated rooms of their house should never be disturbed), and when morality simply demanded the silent erasure of any undignified problems.
The power of McDermott’s writing lifts even this intriguing premise into a new dimension, however, for she manages to compose a profound meditation on the nature of love out of her resolutely ordinary characters. Love is, as she so poignantly demonstrates, what lifts us out of the standard run of humanity and makes us chosen, special, new to ourselves. Yet what this book so hauntingly considers is the supreme and magnificent moment of love against the backdrop of the relentless ruthlessness of life; the way life insists that even something as precious and glorious as love be set aside, forgotten, labeled irrelevant. Except that insist is not quite the right word; life is like a glacier whose enormity inches it forward, blindly crushing anything in its path, leaving a little churned debris to one side, the last traces or remnants of what was real and vivid and extraordinary. It is what it is, and the story of that night, becomes the story, for our child narrator, of what she must learn in order to grow up. ‘In the dark room, in the single shaft of the blue nightlight – the light kept burning merely to demonstrate to the night that the family is this house is watchful, determined to be safe – it is the only wisdom an adult can offer the child. It is both an incantation and a prayer: You will and you must. Not merely get over the loss, but also learn that its insult is not nearly as great as it once seemed.’
It’s the prose of McDermott that really kept me hooked into this book, though. It is incredibly serene for all the dramatic events it recounts, and terribly beautiful. I had the impression that each small paragraph was a house of cards the author had constructed that sustained something fragile and yet miraculously strong. Like the narrator’s memory of her mother’s desperate attempts to conceive a third child that ended regularly in a hot bath accompanied by the stories in her women’s magazine: ‘In these stories, the women who longed for children got them, usually just as the longing itself had been nearly obscured by something else: a death, a birthday party, an adoption, as if the longing itself had been the culprit. I suppose the message was that too blatant a desire to manipulate your own life was unseemly. I suppose my mother never caught on.’ McDermott has a wonderful way with metaphor, too, and I loved the description of one of the local fathers out walking his beagle, Daisy: ‘He was a tall, thin man and he reminded me of a cowboy on a restless horse the way he moved back and forth, trying to counterbalance Daisy’s desperate forward motion.’ This is a book that has grown in stature in my mind every time I’ve looked back at it, and I think it will stay with me for a long time. It’s one of the very few books I’d like to reread one day when I’m feeling particularly quiet and receptive to its subtle wisdom. I’ll certainly be hunting down more of McDermott’s work. What with this and the Philip Roth, I feel like I’ve had an amazing start to my summer reading challenge on contemporary American fiction – let’s hope it continues this way!