Endurance, going the distance, sucking up the solitude and the brine. I’m not talking about the glorious Diana Nyad and her instantly historic swim from Cuba to Key West, but of the ordinary heroine whose life is the subject of Alice McDermott’s latest novel, Someone. “Ordinary” is a word that’s used a lot to describe McDermott’s characters, mostly Irish and working class, mostly un-heroic in any splashy way. McDermott’s heroine is named Marie and in Someone, we readers hear, in a fragmented way, about the marathon span of her life: her Brooklyn childhood in the 1920s and ‘30s; her older brother Gabe, who becomes a priest and then mysteriously decides “it wasn’t for [him];” her first romantic heartbreak and first job; her eventual husband and kids; and her lifetime’s worth of bodily insults and illnesses. It all sounds as tedious as swimming, stroke after stroke, through the water; and yet in McDermott’s unsentimental rendering, Marie’s ordinary life becomes one for the record books. That’s the spectacular power of McDermott’s writing: Without ever putting on literary airs, she reveals to us what’s distinct about characters who don’t have the ego or eloquence to make a case for themselves as being anything special.
As much as it traces Marie’s life, Someone is also a lyrical novel about neighborhood and about people whose world is limited to their block, their parish, their apartment house. McDermott keeps giving us glimpses of the rough, accidental communities that city neighborhoods — then and now — create: a game of stickball in the street, a group of women standing outside a church after Sunday mass, a line of customers in a corner deli. One of the masterpiece moments in this novel arises out of Marie’s job: After she graduates high school, she’s hired by the local undertaker, Mr. Fagin, who “needs a girl” to greet the mourners. Marie is given carte blanche to buy five good wool dresses from the Abraham and Straus Department Store and set to work. During lulls at the funeral home, one of her extra duties is to go up to the third floor where Mr. Fagin’s mother lives to chat with her. There, in an apartment filled with small vases of rearranged funeral flowers, Marie usually finds old Mrs. Fagin sitting on her couch, surrounded by visiting nuns and neighborhood ladies, reviewing the “pedigrees” of the dead in their coffins below. Listen to how Marie describes the women’s encoded conversations:
“Whatever part of the [deceased’s] 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 as readily as the rest … a finger held to the side of a nose indicated a deception, a pantomimed bottle raised to the mouth meant there was a problem with drink, … eyebrows raised and words falling off into a long nod indicated sex …”
McDermott, like the gossiping women she describes, is herself a master of silence and gesture. Nothing feels overwritten in Someone: The small stories and conversations that make up the bulk of Marie’s life are casual and so true to the conventional wisdom of their time period that, when McDermott suddenly hops forward a few decades, we’re startled. For example, for most of the novel, Marie’s ex-priest brother Gabe is known to us as a gentle loner, so it’s jarring to come upon a section of the novel where one of Marie’s grown daughters refers to him knowingly as “Uncle Gabe blade.” That daughter’s flip tone is much more of a shock than the revelation about Gabe’s sexual orientation. In objection to her daughter’s cheekiness, Marie tells her, “I don’t see the world the way you kids do.”
That plain phrase, which we’ve all heard a hundred times, is one of the epiphanies of McDermott’s novel. She makes us feel its truth: Our worlds may overlap, but they’re not fully shared. Marie’s children joke about a subject — sexuality — that Marie, as the product of pre-World War II Catholic Brooklyn, can’t even name. In Someone, McDermott summons up that vanished Brooklyn world and Marie’s life in it, neither special nor heroic, just significant in its own right.