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Alice McDermott Biography

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Nationality: American. Born: Brooklyn, New York, 1953. Education: State University of New York, B.A. 1975; University of New Hampshire, M.A. 1978. Career: Lecturer in English, University of New Hampshire, Durham, 1978-79; fiction reader for Redbook and Esquire, 1979-80; lecturer in writing, University of California, San Diego. Awards: Whiting Writers award, 1987. Agent: Harriet Wasserman Literary Agency, 137 East 36th Street, New York, New York 10016, U.S.A.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

A Bigamist's Daughter. New York, Random House, 1982.

That Night. New York, Farrar, Straus, 1987.

At Weddings and Wakes. New York, Farrar, Straus, 1991.

Charming Billy. New York, Farrar, Straus, 1998.

* * *

Alice McDermott approaches each novel as if she were a novice writer since each, she says, is "a new story and you have to find a new way to tell it and it makes its own demands." Nevertheless, her first novel, A Bigamist's Daughter, hints at topics and nascent stories which spill into future novels as well as introduces her characteristic style which critics describe as "prismatic." Interested in seeing "ordinary things, ordinary moments, in a variety of ways," McDermott achieves this variety by manipulating time and chronology. Her fiction aims not just to narrate the events, but to validate what one says about events. Thus, her characters tell or embellish their stories using hindsight refracted through new experiences. Their storytelling, and by extension ours, closely imitates the way memory works; one event spinning off another, not necessarily chronologically, but revealing much about the characters' inner lives.

In writing her first novel, McDermott's approach was "to learn to write a novel." Storytelling, therefore, is the basis of A Bigamist's Daughter. Elizabeth Connelly, a twenty-something, cynical vanity press editor in New York meets Tupper, a wealthy southern writer with an unfinished novel about a bigamist. Caught in an attempt to help Tupper, now her lover, find an ending to his novel, Elizabeth tells Tupper personal stories while inevitably meditating upon others. Through these interwoven flashbacks, we learn about Elizabeth's mysterious father whose frequent disappearances were "explained" by stories—he was on secret government business. Elizabeth remembers her mother Dolores telling her yet one more time how she met her father, or Elizabeth remembers discovering how Dolores refashioned herself after widowhood and her death and funeral. In exchange, Tupper relates a family tradition of birth and death. Together, they finish her father's story, which Tupper appropriates, in front of an aunt's newly discovered tombstone. Finally, Elizabeth narrates her love for Bill, with whom she lived for two years, but provides multiple answers only for herself as to why, despite his charm, she left him.

McDermott continues the theme of separated couples and the technique of time manipulation in her second novel as well as a movie, the highly acclaimed That Night, a rite of passage story which, McDermott knew, demanded a strong voice. Here, through layer upon layer of memory, a first person narrator looks back trying to make sense of events she witnessed as a ten-year-old child. Through the prism of adulthood, she remembers a hot summer night in a 1960s Long Island suburbia not unlike those of John Cheever or John Updike, according to the Los Angeles Times. Teenager Rick attempts to find his sweetheart, Sheryl, who is pregnant and, unknown to him, has been sent away by her mother. When he and his neighborhood buddies pull her mother from the house, neighborhood men rescue her and Rick is jailed. The familiar bittersweet tale of lost young love introduces the narrator to the adult world; her narration captures the raw, wild emotions of the neighborhood upheaval achieved through McDermott's strong words and rich, complex sentence structure, described as baroque by critic David Leavitt.

When McDermott began At Weddings and Wakes, she was most interested in the family theme of "what goes on between and among generations," especially what does not get passed on, what invents a family's heritage. First, she created a world she knows well, Irish Americans in Brooklyn during the 1950s; then the three spinster sisters who live with "Momma" and married sister Lucy grew organically to populate her narrative, for, McDermott says, "the writing itself generates stories for me." McDermott excels at spotlighting individuals within large gatherings, such as the festive wedding of sister May, an ex-nun who is marrying Fred, the mailman, or the tragedy of May's wake quickly following. McDermott allows the stock characters to play out their roles so that gradually they coalesce to form a picture of the Townes family, a prototypical dysfunctional Catholic clan. Simultaneously, the novel's theme of familial love, despite all the quarrels and closed doors, strengthens amidst heartbreak and emerges through the observations of Lucy's three children. Compared to the Anglo-Irish writer William Trevor in Kirkus Reviews, McDermott also dignifies, to use her word, "ordi-nary" people whose "ordinary" lives are infused with an elegiac eloquence, the tone which dominates her next novel.

Charming Billy, McDermott's fourth novel, opens at a wake; nearly fifty Irish-American Catholic friends and relatives have gathered at a musty Bronx bar to eulogize the eponymous title character Billy Lynch. McDermott describes him as "that stereotypical, lovable Irishman, drinks too much, talks too much, puts his arm around you at 3 AM, when everybody else has gone home and with tears in his eyes tells you how much he loves you." But no one could stop Billy from drinking himself to death. The novel exists because McDermott found this easily recognizable character appealing.

Everyone at the wake has been affected by Billy's alcoholism, especially Maeve, his long-suffering wife, and Dennis, his cousin and best friend. Using her prismatic approach, McDermott actually resurrects Billy through the stories each lovingly offers and which she filters through the unsentimental memory of Dennis's daughter, thereby adroitly avoiding Billy as cliché and again making each of the group essential. The story involves three generations of this tightly knit group and through their stories McDermott moves back and forth between present and past going as far back as World War II. Almost all their stories refer to "the Irish girl," Eva, the love of Billy's life whom he met the summer after military duty at Dennis's small East Hampton cottage. Eva returns to Ireland, accepts Billy's hard earned money for her eventual return, yet marries another. In order to protect Billy, just one among many such efforts, Dennis tells him Eva has died of pneumonia, and so commences the "Big Lie" which perhaps ruins Billy's life.

In her own evaluation of Charming Billy, McDermott, a practicing Catholic, believes that faith as well as storytelling play key roles in the novel. As her Irish-American characters tell their stories about Billy they believe they can make his wasted life important. But their stories are also about themselves, for they believe they can make all their lives meaningful.

Judith C. Kohl

Gerald (Edward) McDermott (1941-) Biography - Personal, Addresses, Career, Member, Honors Awards, Writings, Sidelights [next]

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