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James T. KeaneJuly 12, 2022
Alice McDermott is pictured in a 2013 photo. (CNS photo/courtesy Epic Photography Jamie Schoenberger)

In a 2009 article for America, the Rev. Robert Lauder made the following claim about the “Catholic novel” in its better-known forms: “At the risk of oversimplifying, the God who appears in the novels of [Graham] Greene, [Evelyn] Waugh, [François] Mauriac and [Flannery] O’Connor is the Transcendent Other, entering, sometimes suddenly, into the lives of the characters in the story,” Lauder wrote. “In those novels Francis Thompson’s image of God as ‘The Hound of Heaven’ is powerfully portrayed. The image is of God pursuing the sinner, and when an encounter between the novel’s protagonist and God takes place, it is depicted very dramatically, even miraculously.”

Robert Lauder on Alice McDermott: "She sees creation as sacramental, and within this sacramental world grace works ever so subtly."

Recent decades, however, had brought a new kind of Catholic novelist to the fore: Ones who were not writing out of the “church-against-culture” idiom of American Catholicism before the Second Vatican Council, nor necessarily depicting God as a “transcendent other.” Chief among them, Lauder wrote, was Alice McDermott. “In McDermott’s world God could never be described as an outsider or an intruder,” he wrote. “If poet Francis Thompson’s ‘The Hound of Heaven’ illuminates Greene’s work then poet Gerard Manley Hopkins’ insight ‘The world is charged with the grandeur of God’ illuminates McDermott’s. She sees creation as sacramental, and within this sacramental world grace works ever so subtly.”

A native of Brooklyn, McDermott was 12 when Vatican II ended and the United States first became heavily involved in the Vietnam War, so she came of age in a rapidly changing nation and church, a theme reflected in many of her eight novels. Her short stories have appeared everywhere from The New Yorker to Seventeen to Commonweal. The Richard A. Macksey Professor of the Humanities at Johns Hopkins University, she most recently published a collection of essays, What About the Baby? Some Thoughts on the Art of Fiction.

McDermott’s 2017 novel, The Ninth Hour, was the Catholic Book Club selection in Fall 2018. Americafeatured a review by Jenny Shank and an interpretive essay by CBC moderator Kevin Spinale, S.J. “Alice McDermott has once again delivered a novel to ponder and cherish, from its moral quandaries down to its wry humor and hypnotic prose,” Shank wrote, calling her “perhaps today’s pre-eminent American Catholic novelist, with three novels named as finalists for the Pulitzer Prize and one awarded the National Book Award (Charming Billy).” Many of McDermott’s novels and stories are drawn from the Brooklyn Irish Catholic community that she grew up in, Shank notes, “but in none is it so thoroughly embedded as The Ninth Hour.” Indeed, Irish-Americans will recognize their families in many of McDermott’s stories (I was a bit startled when After This immersed me in the world of the Keanes!).

The Ninth Hour centers around a young woman and three nuns who serve as her adoptive aunts, and whose personalities and faith stories intersect, clash and coexist in a Brooklyn convent. Spinale wrote in his essay how much they reminded him of the formative influences on his own faith. “Catholicism—the history and culture of its American form—has been dyed into me like a garment taking on a color; I have absorbed Catholicism like a bolt of linen cloth taking on indigo,” he wrote. “Catholicism cannot be washed out of me. And the principal dyers, the people who helped define me by my Catholic faith, were my aunts.” Some of these aunts were nuns, Spinale wrote, and all “rendered me Catholic through force of personality,” women of “defiance, humor, fierce intelligence and warmth.” So too are the women of McDermott’s novel, one in which men and church authorities “remain a ghostly presence” far from the action.

"In McDermott’s novels God is the horizon toward which the characters are oriented, the atmosphere that surrounds them, the love in which they exist and move and have their being."

Lauder wrote his essay for America eight years before The Ninth Hour was released, but he was on to something about McDermott’s worldview. Her nuns are not like the protagonists of Graham Greene, lost or dissolute souls whom God finds in their moment of need; rather, the women of The Ninth Hour have spent all their lives in conversation with God—and they feel free to talk back a bit. While they live in a pre-Vatican II world, they speak less as cloistered nuns than as contemplatives in action, seeking to imitate Christ in their daily labors for the suffering poor of Brooklyn.

“In McDermott’s novels God is the horizon toward which the characters are oriented, the atmosphere that surrounds them, the love in which they exist and move and have their being,” Lauder wrote. I thought immediately of Charming Billy when I read that line—a novel whose characters do not experience dramatic changes in fortune, but simply persevere in a world full of lights and shadows. “Because God is present in every human experience, even sin, it is easy to overlook that presence.”

One final note: Last week the Catholic Media Association met in Portland, Ore. (and virtually) for its annual convention, including the presentation of the Catholic Media Awards. America performed quite well, garnering 21 awards overall; in addition, this weekly books column won Second Place in the “Best Regular Column - Arts, Leisure, Culture and Food” category. While my tiara seems to have been held up in the mail, I am grateful to our readers and to the Catholic Media Association for the honor. Special thanks to our departing O’Hare Fellow, Sarah Vincent, who edited this column since its inception last Fall with grace and the necessary courage.

•••

Our poetry selection for this week is “Discernment of Spirits,” by Mia Schilling Grogan. Readers can view all of America’s published poems here.

In this space every week, America features reviews of and literary commentary on one particular writer or group of writers (both new and old; our archives span more than a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this will give us a chance to provide you more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that doesn’t make it into our newsletters.

Other Catholic Book Club columns:

Theophilus Lewis brought the Harlem Renaissance to the pages of America

William Lynch, the greatest American Jesuit you’ve probably never heard of

Lessons from John Courtney Murray for our divided country

Leonard Feeney, America’s only excommunicated literary editor (to date)

Joan Didion: A chronicler of modern life’s horrors and consolations

Happy reading!

James T. Keane

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