Alice McDermott’s place in the canon of great Catholic novelists
The next issue of America features a book review by the Rev. Robert Lauder. He begins with an announcement that should thrill many of our readers:
The good news for anyone whose literary tastes have been strongly influenced by the Catholic novels of Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Francois Mauriac, Georges Bernanos, Morris West, Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor, Edwin O’Connor, A. J. Cronin and Piers Paul Read is this: The new Alice McDermott novel, Absolution, has arrived!
That’s some elite company. But Father Lauder, a contributor to America for 50 years, is not alone among our writers and editors in his esteem for McDermott’s fiction. He also wrote about her for America in 2009 in “After Alice: The emergence of a new kind of Catholic novel,” where he commented that the “Catholic horizon of Alice McDermott’s novels gives profound meaning to her insightful and joyful attention to humanity.” That sentiment has been shared in one way or another by everyone from the Rev. Andrew Greeley to the writer Ron Hansen in America’s pages over the years.
In his 1998 review, Gerard Reedy, S.J., noted that the “ethnic geography of Irish America, including the New York area, dominates Charming Billy.”
McDermott taught creative writing at Johns Hopkins University for many years. She was inducted into the New York State Writers Hall of Fame in 2013. Two years later, America published a dialogue about death and mourning in contemporary life between McDermott and the poet and the essayist Thomas Lynch sponsored by the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture.
Absolution is Alice McDermott’s ninth novel in a writing career that began with A Bigamist’s Daughter in 1982. Her 1998 novel Charming Billy won the National Book Award, and three other novels—That Night (1987), At Weddings and Wakes (1992) and After This (2006)—were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize. She is also the author of a 2021 essay collection, What About the Baby?
America has reviewed them all—okay, not the first one, but McDermott was somewhat unknown in 1982 and besides, the title might have scared the literary editor away.
I have been a fan of McDermott since I first read Charming Billy more than two decades ago, and have had occasion to return to that book many times since in teaching courses on Catholic fiction. I also know more than a few Irish-American Catholics who say that reading that haunting but beautiful novel is like stepping back into their family history (and sometimes into parts of that history they didn’t necessarily want to remember). Indeed, in his 1998 America review of the novel, Gerard Reedy, S.J., noted that the “ethnic geography of Irish America, including the New York area, dominates Charming Billy.”
I felt the same about After This, and not just because it’s about a large Irish Catholic family named Keane. 👀
“McDermott’s novels are not so much about place as they are about people,” wrote Angela Alaimo O’Donnell in a 2013 review of Someone for America. “Her focus is on the ways in which human beings make a home in whatever world they happen to find themselves. And the key to that home is not location, location, location—it is love. This is McDermott’s true subject, and she writes about it expertly, realistically, and poignantly.”
I have been a fan of McDermott since I first read Charming Billy more than two decades ago.
McDermott’s most recent novel before Absolution, The Ninth Hour, was America’s Catholic Book Club selection for the first quarter of 2018. The story of a girl and her three adoptive nun aunts in Brooklyn, Sister Illuminata, Sister Lucy and Sister Jeanne, The Ninth Hourstruck Catholic Book Club moderator Kevin Spinale, S.J., as “a wonderful Catholic book, and, as I read and contemplated it (and it is a book you will contemplate), I could not help but think of the aunts of my own life—women who shaped me and planted a faith into me that I cannot shake because their goodness was so clear, so evident to me.”
The Ninth Hour “will seep into you like indigo into a clean, pure bolt of cloth,” Father Spinale wrote. “I cannot recommend reading this novel enough—and rereading it as well. It will provoke contemplation and prayer.”
Jenny Shank reviewed The Ninth Hour for America that same year. “Alice McDermott has once again delivered a novel to ponder and cherish, from its moral quandaries down to its wry humor and hypnotic prose,” she wrote.
While McDermott’s previous work has largely centered on families in Brooklyn and Long Island, Absolution moves the bulk of the action to the other side of the world: Saigon during the Vietnam War. However, Father Lauder notes, other themes—like Catholics struggling to live out their faith in the modern world, and the ins and outs of marital love—will be familiar to fans of McDermott’s work.
“McDermott’s novel can be both compared and contrasted with Graham Greene’s novel The Quiet American, whose narrator does not believe in God,” writes Father Lauder. “The last line of Greene’s novel is ‘…but how I wished there was someone to whom I could say I was sorry.’ (McDermott uses that last line as an epigraph to her novel.) However, unlike Greene’s novel, absolution is a possibility in McDermott’s story.”
“McDermott’s novels are not so much about place as they are about people,” wrote Angela Alaimo O’Donnell in 2013.
Also, big news from the Catholic Book Club: This fall, we are reading Come Forth: The Promise of Jesus’s Greatest Miracle, by James Martin, S.J. Click here for more information or to sign up for our Facebook discussion group.
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 with 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:
- The spiritual depths of Toni Morrison
- What’s all the fuss about Teilhard de Chardin?
- Moira Walsh and the art of a brutal movie review
- Leonard Feeney, America’s only excommunicated literary editor (to date)
James T. Keane