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That Night (thoughts)

January 19, 2008

I mooched That Night by Alice McDermott who knows how long ago, off some blog that I read. Then, last fall I decided to Unreadinclude it in my list for the Unread Authors Challenge. And now I’ve finally gotten around to reading it! Incurable Logophilia focused on McDermott for the Reading the Author challenge, and her review of That Night is well worth reading! She approaches it differently, as part of McDermott’s canon, whereas for me it’s my first experience with the author.

I’m sure, however, that it won’t be my last. This short book (less than two hundred pages, more than one hundred fifty, hovering somewhere between a novella and novel) focuses on suburban life in the early 60s. It revolves around the memories of our narrator (then a child, now an adult looking back) of Rick, a teenage ‘hoodlum’ who shows up one night with a bunch of friends at his girlfriend Sheryl’s house and goes bersek trying to see her. Of course, she’s already been sent away, to take care of ‘her problem.’ Branching out from that, McDermott focuses on various families who lived on the street, as well devling deeper into Sheryl and Rick. For such a short novel, it accomplishes an incredible amount of narration, as well as a touch or two of plot. But really, McDermott shines at creating images in the reader’s head. Take the following passage, early in the book:

Until then, I had thought all violence was swift and surefooted, somehow sleek, even elegeant. I was surprised to see how poor it really was, how laborious and hulking. I saw one of the men bend under the blow of what seemed a slow-moving chain, and then, just as gracelessly, swing his son’s baseball bat into a teenager’s ear. I saw the men and the boys leap on one another like obese, short-legged children, sliding and falling, raising chains that seemed to crumble backward onto their shoulders, moving bats and hoes and wide rakes that seemed as unwieldly as trees. There were no clever D’Artagnan mid-air meetings of chain and snow shoevel, no eye-to-eye throat grippings, no witty retors and well-timed dodges, no winners. Only, in the growing darkness, a hundred dumb, unrhythmical movements, only blow after artless blow.

Isn’t it just stunning? I happened to be reading this part out loud (my baby niece was taking her bath, and even though she can’t understand anything yet, she likes me to read to her), and it made it so much more powerful!

This book takes the reader on a journey, into different characters’ motivations, into the vanished world of “Leave it to Beaver” suburbia, into the world of childhood. I highly recommend this to everyone who loves elegant writing and real characters. :)

Favourite Passages
She gathered her books into her arms. I watched her walk home: the lcink of his bracelet, the gold flash of her ankle, the paperback and looseleaf binder marked with their names. There was something sullen in her walk, a kind of challenge. I saw her toss her hair back over her shoulder before she pulled open the front door, armed and ready, it seemed to me, to battle even the Angel of Death. (74)

The Carpenters lived in their basement because the rest of their house was too beautiful to bear. At least this is what the women who had seen it (none of us children ever got beyond a glance into the upstairs kitchen) reported on their return. The firs time Mrs. Carpenter gave her the full, shoeless tour, my mother came home holding her heart and saying there was nothing like it in the world….Upon her return from what seemed to us the enchanted mist-shrouded heights-the upstairs part of the Carpenters’ house-my mother threatened to break my brother’s arm if he didn’t learn to hang up his coat, and she told me that the state of my dresser drawers constituted the biggest disappointment of her life. She claimed our house, too, had once been lovely and seemed to indicate that its decline began only with our birth. At dinner, she threw a boiled potato at my father’s head when he said he much preferred the lived-in look. (93)

Until this moment, Sheryl had not thought seriously about the baby to be born. Until now, she thought of the pregnancy itself as her dilemma, as if it were, in itself, a complete fact, without implication. All she had feared in the past two months was the moment she would have to walk into her mother’s bedroom to tell her, and she had considered her punishment, the consequence of her confession, to be only the cold, humiliating examination she had had that morning, and then this exile.
Now she saw it was endless. It stretched infinitely before her, as fully burdensome as all the years she had yet to live. (120-1)

5 Comments leave one →
  1. January 20, 2008 7:56 am

    “Elegant writing” certainly does describe the passages you’ve quoted. I need to read this one just for the pleasure of the words on paper!

  2. January 20, 2008 7:26 pm

    Jenclair, it is quite a pleasure. :)

  3. verbivore permalink
    January 21, 2008 12:02 am

    I am so glad you enjoyed it! Definitely one of my favorite McDermott’s. And the passage you quoted about violence is also one that has stuck with me. If you are looking for another one to try, I would suggest Charming Billy – also spectacular but in a completely different way.

  4. January 21, 2008 7:43 pm

    Verbivore, I’ll have to put Charming Billy on the TBR list. :) I’m almost afraid to read another one, in case it can’t live up to this one!

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  1. Unread Authors Challenge « A Striped Armchair

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