Wednesday, 4 March 2015

That Night by Alice McDermott

I think this is now the fourth Alice McDermott book I've read. I question why, since they aren't ones I have loved. Then again, it may be because I first read some of her more recent works, that I quite enjoyed, while what's crossed my reading list lately are her first two books, and I definitely don't like them as much. This is an author that's gotten better as she's matured, particularly once she started to focus on telling less universal stories that come across as detailless. Her later books seem to be about Irish-American families, and they sparkle in ways that her earlier books do not. I was not a fan of The Bigamist's Daughter. As for That Night, it's okay, but not great.

In it, she tries to capture late 1950s suburbia, and it's okay, just a little lifeless. There are misunderstood greaser boys. There are girls who tease their hair and court badness. There are wives who are getting more than a little bored. There are men who don't really feel like the suburbs are their homes, just places they visit on the weekends and sleep overnight. No one's happy. Everyone's waiting.

And then one girl gets pregnant, and her mother makes her leave town, and cuts off contact with her boyfriend, and he doesn't know this, and shows up at her place with other greasers in tow, and a fight ensues between the teenagers and all the men of the neighbourhood. That's the That Night of the title.

My main problem, though, the one thing that kept niggling at me, was the inconsistency of the narrator. We're supposed to have a consistent narrator, the 12-year-old neighbour of the knocked-up girl. We're supposed to see this through her eyes. But then, without rhyme or reason, the story spins out to know far more about the home life of the young Romeo, or the internal monologue of his Juliet when she's several states away, and there is no way, absolutely no way, for the narrator to know any of this. And there's no explanation! Just a reminder every once in a while that we have a young girl as narrator.

It drove me crazy. I kept staring at the page, trying to figure out how, given how it's set up, she could possibly know any of this. There's no sign she tracked down everyone in the story in later life, let alone anything to explain all she seems to know about the futures of all the bored housewives around her neighbourhood. It could work as an omniscient narrator. Or it could work as how someone too young to really get it understood what was going on. You just kind of can't have both, while pretending you only have one. It's sloppy, and it kept bringing me out of the story.

Beyond that, it's not as deep as it seems to think it is, and all the details of suburbia are of a universal suburbia, not a specific one with specific people. It's all vague archetypes, and that's a weakness, not selling point. I know McDermott gets better than this. Thankfully.

That said, it's not terrible. It's not kind of...not that much.

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