There is a lot of important and provocative fiction out there; in the last two years alone there have been numerous BIG books. What I mean by that are the books that openly tackle huge questions about morality or the future, about issues relating to theology, philosophy, good and evil. While I do love fiction that takes on those kinds of challenges, I also have an immense respect for the writer that takes a quieter story – a tale of love and madness, of ordinary heartbreak and modest triumph – and writes it honestly and beautifully.
The actual story behind Alice McDermott’s novel That Night is nothing extraordinary – teenage love, life lessons learned early…but the careful way McDermott works this simple narrative manages to create a startlingly rich world peopled by a sympathetic cast of characters with a lot to say about life. The entire novel centers on a single event in the life of the narrator – a summer evening of her youth when a street fight broke out between some teenage kids and the neighborhood fathers.
That night when he came to claim her, he stood on the short lawn before her house, his knees bent, his fists driven into his thighs, and bellowed her name with such passion that even the friends who surrounded him, who had come to support him, to drag her from the house, to murder her family if they had to, let the chains they carried go limp in their hands. Even the men from our neighborhood, in Bermuda shorts or chinos, white T-shirts and gray suit pants, with baseball bats and snow shovels held before them like rifles, even they paused in their rush to protect her: the good and the bad – the black-jacketed boys and the fathers in their light summer clothes – startled for that one moment before the fighting began by the terrible, piercing sound of his call.
This is serious, my own father remembered thinking at that moment. This is insane.
I remember only that my ten-year old heart was stopped by the beauty of it all.
The voice McDermott sets up here is just wonderful. The narrator looks back on the event with a keen nostalgia and a careful eye on everyone involved. And she continues to move in and around the event, telling how it came about and how it was resolved, with this same unique narrative access. In this way, she creates a microcosm of desires and disappointments for her entire neighborhood from the shared history of this event – an ingenious trick that adds a subtle weight to the entire story and infuses even the smallest action with deeper meaning.
But now as she watched her cousin’s husband turning casually and only a little stiffly to see where the other two children had gone, the little boy asleep against him, she felt only a dazzling and depthless loss. Not because her own child would never know its father, the father never know what rest his body had been formed to give, but because she was not the child she had once been but would never be again. Because the shoulder and chest and arms that had once so casually and so thoroughly held her had left the earth long before she had lost her need for them.
And so it happens that wedged inside the simple story of a teenage romance gone awry is a cautious exploration of love and how it works, how it comes into being and in what shape, how important it can seem, and how sometimes it must be given up in the process of growing up.
That Night is McDermott’s second novel, published in 1987 and it went on to become a finalist for The Pulitzer, the Pen/Faulkner and the National Book Award.