Dennis Smith’s first autobiographical book, Report from Engine Co. 82, appeared in 1972 and garnered literary acclaim. Ten book to his credit later, this prequel to that account of life as a New York firefighter, A Song for Mary: An Irish-American Memory, is a love letter disguised as a memoir—a tribute to Smith’s mother, Mary, who raised two sons single-handedly while her husband lingered, and finally died, in a mental hospital.
Smith describes his and his older brother, Billy’s, ordinary lives with extraordinary insight. Although little of import occurred in the Smith’s Irish- Catholic community beyond the daily dreams inherent in skipping school, confessing first loves, and hiding one’s whereabouts, the charm of Smith’s account lies in his ability to see and highlight the significance of life’s small gestures. For example, the author’s account of giving his mother the gift of a ring he had saved for months to purchase captures his and his mother’s characters and their rapport in a single anecdote. Smith’s mother, beside herself with anguish over Smith’s recent delinquent behavior, realizes her son’s present says more about his soul than does his truancy. In turn, her telling him so provides Smith the self-esteem to prove her observation true.
Yet for the very normalcy and even nostalgia that create in A Song for Mary refreshing sentiment, sufficient strong diction and tension also permeate the text to cause Smith’s story to transcend predictability and sentimentality. Although most of the author and his brother’s youthful exploits seem tame by contemporary standards, as a teenager Smith experimented with heroin, a habit that conquered too many of his friends. The reader relates to Smith’s struggles, as heaven and hell—in the guise of a saintly mother and a gang of would-be friends—serve as counterpoints of influence for an intelligent, sensitive, and guilt-ridden boy who grew up to win his battle.