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Review-a-Day
The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, September 19th, 2006
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After This: A Novel

by Alice McDermott

Truth's Anticlimactic Tug

A review by Joseph O'Neill

Alice McDermott's sixth novel, After This, returns her readers to the familiar terrain of Irish American Long Island and, yet again, to the combination of qualities -- compressed, poetic prose allied with an unblinking, William Trevor–ish sympathy for the muffled spiritual adventures of the most middling members of the middle classes -- that have earned McDermott her high reputation (and prizes: she has a National Book Award and two Pulitzer nominations to her credit).

This novel is distinguished from its predecessors, however, by its linear, saga-like structure. Episodically, we follow two generations of the Keane family from the parental marriage, in an America still shadowed by World War II, through to the era of Vietnam and haphazard sexual freedom that the four children must negotiate. The inevitable happens: the founding marriage (an economically and emotionally immobile union that can strike the wife as 'an awkward pact with a stranger') survives rather than thrives, and the kids flutter into the world on wings that, notwithstanding their parents' best and most loving efforts, are meagerly feathered and can only transport them so high -- wings that cannot, of course, fly them beyond the reach of tragedy.

Thus the novel embodies the tension between the climactic expectations we bring to books (and, indeed, to our lives) and truth's anticlimactic tug. Characters brighten into glowing complexity and then, trampled by the 'march of time,' are all but extinguished in terrifyingly casual flash-forwards that, within the space of a paragraph, effectively write off all the writing that's been devoted to them. This is all a measure of McDermott's difficulty, and melancholic strength, as a writer. Her true subject is her inability, in good conscience, to fully credit the significance of the human travails she describes with such care.

Joseph O'Neill is writing his third novel, The Brooklyn Dream Game.


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