This is the second in an occasional series of posts on whether the winners and finalists for the Pulitzer Prizes and other major book awards deserved their honors.
Title: After This. By Alice McDermott. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 279 pp., $24. Paperback to be published by Dial Press in September 2007.
What it is: McDermott’s latest novel about Irish-Americans in postwar New York City and Long Island.
A finalist for … the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, won by Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. McDermott was also a Pulitzer finalist for At Weddings and Wakes and Charming Billy, winner of a National Book Award.
How much I read: About 115 pages, more than a third of the book.
Why I stopped reading: McDermott’s writing has acquired a paunch.
Was this one of those book awards that made you wonder if the judges were on Class B controlled substances? Or if the publisher had pornographic videos of all of them? No, but it makes you wonder if someone had a thumb on the scales of cosmic justice, because what I read of After This was much less worthy of its finalist status than Charming Billy was.
Comments: Alice McDermott has reached a treacherous point in her career. She’s begun to strip-mine her material and to pad what she’s said in earlier books instead of doing work that’s fresh and surprising. Maeve, the first person we meet in Charming Billy had been “a plain girl approaching thirty with … no prospects.” Mary, the first person we meet in After This, is “thirty, with no husband in sight” and “not what you’d call a good-looking woman.” This repetition of circumstance isn’t a problem in itself, because great writers – from Jane Austen to John Cheever – have returned repeatedly to characters who are similarly situated. The problem is that McDermott has so little new to say that she has strain for effect. Mary marries John Keane for no apparent reason beyond a desire to escape her loneliness and fulfill her sexual desires. From the wedding McDermott fast-forwards to a day after the birth of three of their children, when the couple’s son Michael looks at his father “as if he were an utter stranger.” A dozen pages later, John Keane feels “with utter certainty” that something bad will happen and, later in the same paragraph, senses the “utter darkness” around him. There’s no reason for the repetitive language; it’s just flab of a sort that occurs on nearly every page, sometimes in sentences that keep doubling back on themselves until you need a compass to navigate them. McDermott also skimps on dialogue and relies on exposition to drive the novel, which results in a Jamesian mannerism that doesn’t suit anybody but Henry James (and sometimes not even him). In Charming Billy she showed that she knows better, so it’s hard to fathom why she’s let her writing go as she has in After This.
Best line: “It benefited a child, she thought, to be forgotten once in a while.”
Worst line: This 305-word jawbreaker: “If she kept her back straight and her ankles crossed beneath her chair and her hands over the keys, if her fingers struck them quickly and rhythmically and the sound of all their industry filled the room, and if she remembered to take some pleasure in it, the sound, the industry, the feel of Pauline’s eyes on her back, even after Pauline had gotten up to take dictation in one of the offices, if she found some pleasure in the changing light as the afternoon moved forward, in the fading perfumes of the other girls as they passed her desk, in the good smell of the paper, the carbon, the old building itself, then time would pass and when she stood to cover her typewriter and to run another tissue over the surface of her desk, to smile apologetically at Pauline already in her hat and coat and waiting like the schoolgirl she surely must once have been for the stroke of five (adding, in her hissed stage whisper, ‘This isn’t the first time they’ve been seen together like that’), she could tell herself another day gone and not so bad at that and what else to do when you’re a single girl of thirty still at home, the war over and no prospects in sight, your body not meant for mortal sin or a man’s attention or childbearing, either, it would seem, what to do but accept it and go on – a walk to the subway, the air chilled even further without the sun but the wind not nearly so bad as it was, and the ten-top ride among the crowd of other office workers, and then the walk home, spears of crocus and daffodil rising out of the hard dirt around the caged trees and along the brick foundations, not so bad.”
Recommended? Only if you’re willing to slog through many sentences like the one quoted above. Charming Billy is a much better introduction to McDermott’s work.
Published: September 2006
© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.