The Holy Fool

Someoneby Alice McDermott

Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 240p $25

In her 1963 essay “Novelist and Believer,” Flannery O’Connor lamented the difficulty of writing about man’s encounter with God and making the experience understandable and credible to a skeptical modern audience devoid of religious feeling. “Today’s reader,” she wrote, “if he believes in grace at all, sees it as something which can be separated from nature and served to him raw as Instant Uplift.”

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Though grace suffuses Alice McDermott’s excellent new novel, Someone, which may very well be the best of her long, celebrated career, there is no Instant Uplift to be found in the story of Marie, the clear-eyed, unsentimental narrator as she reflects on her life with her Irish-Catholic family in mid-20th century Brooklyn.

From the beginning, as the near-sighted, 7-year-old Marie sits on her stoop waiting for her father, McDermott defies our tendency to assume or skim ahead with the unexpected and precise rhythms of her prose, forcing us to slow down. To look.

“I pushed my glasses back on my nose. Small city birds the color of ashes rose and fell along the rooftops. In the fading evening light, the stoop beneath my thighs, as warm as breath when I first sat down, now exhaled a shallow chill.”

In McDermott’s deft hands, we soon become delightfully attuned to Marie’s voice as she moves between scenes from her childhood, marriage and old age gently and with purpose, as if it were the most natural way for her to share her story.

Throughout, Marie’s world is, as Gerald Manley Hopkins wrote, charged with the grandeur of God, though she herself would never make this lofty allusion. It is her scholarly, pious brother, Gabe, who recites poetry to the family after dinner, while Marie gets smacked for not paying attention, distracted by “the lovely, tea-soaked dregs in the bottom of my china cup.” Her parents joke that their children run the gamut: Gabe, their future priest; Marie, their little pagan.

While her brother heads to the seminary, Marie also lives up to her parents’ expectations. She fights back when her mother insists she learn to cook. After secretarial school, she refuses to get a job in Manhattan. On her first date, out of fear of losing her suitor’s interest, she allows him to unbutton her shirt in a brilliantly nuanced seduction scene.

Her mother eventually corners Marie into getting a job at the local funeral home, not in the basement working with the bodies, but what the funeral director, Mr. Fagin, describes as the role of “consoling angel” at wakes and funerals. She accepts the position, in part, for the five free dresses and exploits her new status to meet eligible mourners, many of them soldiers on leave during World War II. When they ask her how she could work in this kind of place, she blithely tells them the dead bodies might as well be dolls or sacks of potatoes.

After an appearance at a wake by a bishop, who with his beautiful white hands and the immaculate soles of his shoes, is “the cleanest-looking human being” Marie had ever seen, she is eager to share her excitement with the funeral director’s mother and the nuns with whom she holds court upstairs. When she tells them about the expensive dress the bishop bought for his sister to be buried in, though, the “ladies in Fagin’s upper room” looked back at her “gently sorry, as was their way, for the silly child I was and perhaps would always be, enchanted by baubles, taken in by fools.”

Indeed, a muted commentary on the practical failings of the church is woven throughout the novel. When the funeral director, Mr. Fagin, for example, finds fault in the church’s refusal to bury a blind war veteran who committed suicide, we read: “‘To tell you the truth,’ he said, ‘the damn Church is blind to life sometimes, blind.’ And then blessed himself and begged my pardon. ‘And don’t dare tell anybody I said so.’”

Ultimately, though, McDermott and her narrator have more elemental concerns, expressed by the much older Marie lying in a hospital bed after an operation with both eyes bandaged, calling out into the darkness: “‘Hello,’ I said finally, weakly enough, feeling foolish to be speaking to an empty room in the middle of the night, or a good hour or two before they brought in breakfast, but adding, nevertheless, ‘Is anyone here?’ Giving in to foolishness in order to not be overtaken by fear.”

Though steeped in sorrow and death, fear and foolishness, remarkably, this is not a sad story. For in among so many family losses and all the many more dead she encounters at the funeral home, Marie experiences, if not of Instant Uplift, something resembling grace, the old-fashioned kind.

It would be futile attempt to summarize those sacramental moments, depicted by McDermott with severe kindness, exactitude and humor (without a whiff of pious self-importance), as when Marie meets the man who becomes the “someone” of the title or, through him, comes to a new understanding about her brother’s failure as a priest. Only within the context of the novel itself, dwelling within the charged grandeur evoked by McDermott’s prose, can we experience them as meaningful.

Flannery O’Connor bemoaned how seldom an author and character went out “to explore a world in which the sacred is reflected.” McDermott and her holy fool, Marie, have done just that in this masterful novel.

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