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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2457

Alice McDermott’s After This opens with a sentence as powerful in its sound and imagery as it is potent in foreshadowing the plot and establishing the tone of the novel:

Leaving the Church, she felt the wind rise, felt the pinprick of pebble and grit against her stockings and her...

(The entire section contains 2457 words.)

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Alice McDermott’s After This opens with a sentence as powerful in its sound and imagery as it is potent in foreshadowing the plot and establishing the tone of the novel:

Leaving the Church, she felt the wind rise, felt the pinprick of pebble and grit against her stockings and her cheeks—the slivered shards of mad sunlight in her eyes.

The sibilants in “rise,” “stockings,” “slivered,” “shards,” and “sunlight”; the fricative-plosives in “Church” and “cheeks”; the harder plosives in “pinprick,” “pebble,” and “grit”; the rhyme of “rise,” light,” and “eyes”: all of these work onomatopoetically to suggest the aggressive and painful experiences of life that attack the body and enter the heart. “Slivered shards,” with its associations of explosives and war, becomes, as the story continues, increasingly prophetic. And is that sunlight “mad” in the sense of being angry? Crazed? Or both? In any case, the sunlight, like the rest of the natural elements that hit this woman, is not a dappled warmth that delights but a razor-sharp heat that sears. Yet inside the church, we must infer, life is safe, comfortable, quiet, and softly shaded. It is Mary who, in this opening sentence of After This, leaves the church and walks into the dangerous world, but the story belongs not just to her, but also to her soon-to-be family: John Keane—the man she will marry; Jacob, Mathew, Annie, and Claire—the children they will bear; and to the turbulent post–World War II life they will live. It is a world where, to be sure, children laugh, play, and grow up, but more than that, it is an unkind world suffused with the sadness of death and loss. Alice McDermott’s After This is an elegy, an account of time passing, that tries desperately to hint at a transcendence beyond this pain.

The moment is just after World War II, and Mary, a devout Catholic, walks out of the church after lighting candles for the soldiers (“a candle lit every lunch hour, still, even though the war was over”), into a day so windy that it irritates the eyes of those making their way through midtown Manhattan. “The wind,” Mary tells her friend Pauline when she returns to work, “was making everyone tear up” (p. 14). Scraps of paper on the streets fly everywhere, reminding her of the “detritus that...trails armies, or was it...the scraps of letters and wraps and snapshots that blow across battlefields after all but the dead have fled?” In this turbulence, Mary feels “underneath it all something banging...rhythmic and methodical,” imagery that suggests an unsafe, cacophonic reality pacing the quotidian events of our daily lives.

On this windy day, Mary meets John (could their names be more generic?), a veteran, who walks with a slight limp as a result of an injury from the war. They name their first son Jacob in memory of Jake, who fought and died alongside John on the battlefield, in this way immediately seeming to mark their firstborn as an easy target for fate, ensuring it does not permit him to pass through life unscathed.

Time shifts quickly, and the wind again rises as Mary (now pregnant with their fourth child), John, Jacob, and their two other children, Mathew and Annie, picnic on the beach. “They were alone....They were perfectly safe,” Mary thinks (p. 39). Jacob and Mathew play war games with “green army men, toy bayonets, machine guns, camouflaged jeeps”; however, even before they have a chance to eat their sandwiches, the wind begins to “prick their faces and their arms,” and then, as if to mock Mary’s peace of mind, the weather becomes vicious with “the sky growing black, the wind moaning, the scrim of sand...forming itself into tooth and mouth and open jaw” (p. 46). The family retreats to their car and then their home, only for a hurricane-force wind to knock a tree onto their house during the night, forcing them into the basement. “During the war,” John tells his children, “we sometimes slept in people’s cellar” (p. 53).

This strange, hostile force continues to haunt this ordinary family and, through them, all of us. The next morning Jacob and Michael once again play war games, now in the fallen tree, which seems natural enough—until, that is, the narrator lifts a shade for us to see into the future, when Tony, the son of Mr. Persichetti, their neighbor, returns mentally and emotionally wounded from the Vietnam War: “(‘Shoot him in the foot,’ Mr. Persichetti would tell Mr. Keane when...Jacob had drawn a bad number. ‘Break his legs before you let him go’)” (p. 59). Putting these unbearably powerful words of one father to another in parentheses, shaping them as an understated interruption integral to the scene of play and destruction at hand, intensifies their effect. The use of the future-in-the-past tense in “would tell” furthers this effect while also creating a dramatic irony that causes us to grieve before the tragedy occurs: from this point forward, we know but his parents do not that Jacob will go to the war. By this time John, however, has come to realize that they cannot count on safety in life. Just as Mary, when leaving the church in the opening of the story, experiences a distrust of the future in sensing “something banging” in the “march of time,” so the day before on the beach, after Michael tricked Jacob in their play, John, worrying about his older son, had thought that “Jacob’s defeats seemed too indicative of a certain kind of future.” By this point we know, more than the family do, that “a certain kind” of future in this malevolent universe can only be the tragic kind. Yet that very same day, before we become too lost in sadness, Mary gives birth to their fourth child, Clare, and life continues.

Such dramatic irony contributes to the novel’s disruption of time and shapes its elegiac tone. With years tumbling upon each other in the succeeding pages, images (rather than a logical cause-and-effect relationship between events) hold the novel together. When visiting the World’s Fair years later, Mary and Annie stand in line for hours on a summer day, with “the shrubs and sparse trees...limp,...every head...bent under the day’s accumulated heat,” to see a simulation of Michelangelo’s Pieta, which in Christian art signifies the devotional theme of “Our Lady of Sorrows” (pp. 92-93). Although hot outside, inside the exhibit hall the air is cold and dark, tomblike, and against this blackness mother and daughter view the Mother and Son in that sculpture whose name in Italian means “pity”:

Here was the lifeless flesh of the beloved child, the young man’s muscle and sinew impossibly—impossible for the mother who cradled him—still....Here were the mother’s eyes cast down upon the body of her child once more, only once more, and in another moment...no more. (p. 101)

The heads “bent under the day’s heat” outside in the sun mirror the “mother’s eyes cast down upon the body of her son,” which together with the repetition of the word “here” provides immediacy as one living Mary and daughter view an icon of a different Mary and her crucified son. And when Mary and Annie walk out, nature again confirms the grief within, for in the sky “there were stars but also a stain of red on the western horizon, against the quickly descending night” (p. 101). If the “stars” offer a promise, it is mitigated by that “stain of red” in the “descending night,” a reminder of a painful mortality.

The Keane family is devoutly Catholic, a religion that should infuse their life with hope through its promise of eternal life. However, it is the inevitability of death that permeates the mood of the story more than the presence of a benevolent God caring for his children. When the children are terrified at the wind on the beach, for example, Mary helps them recite a familiar prayer, “Angel of God,” which reassures them that all have an angel to protect them—“to guard, to rule, and to guide” them. Such angels, however, must reckon with a powerful force in the world that McDermott presents in After This, and they do not seem always to succeed. About halfway through the novel, John, in bed with a slipped disc, looks into the mirror across from him where he sees the reflection of a crucifix with “a tiny gold Christ curled against the thick cross” hanging above the bed on the wall behind him. Remembering the crucifix was a gift from the priest who married him and Mary, he knows the cross is thick because behind it “there was a secret compartment that contained two candles and a vial of holy water, the accoutrements of the Last Rites” (p. 121). What sort of wedding present, we might wonder, contains the materials to ready young lovers, who hopefully have a full life ahead of them, for death? “Certainly they had said until death do us part,” the narrator explains, but we again wonder if they need to be reminded of death on their wedding night. But for Mary and John, “bred-in-the-bone Catholics,” such a reminder is not inappropriate. As John lies in bed with the pain of his slipped disc, he imagines “the final scene...[which on their wedding night] became vivid for them both—the crucifix spread apart, the thick white tapers lit, the dim room where he would breathe his last” (p. 121). In this way, the crucifix seems to reassure him that he will be with his wife until he dies and that she will be at his deathbed to comfort him when that moment arrives. However, if John might indulge in such soothing thoughts, we may not, for soon the narrator interrupts his reveries in a voice as impersonal as the evening news. “In fact,” we are told, John “would die alone, accompanied only by the high-pitched pulse of the hospital machine, his last breath missed even by the nurses who were distracted by the changing shifts” (pp. 130-31). So much for guardian angels, and so much, too, for the reassurance of a protecting God. That “tortured figure” on the cross behind John’s bed reminds us that life is about suffering, and the “high-pitched pulse of the hospital machine” that marks John’s death repeats the “banging...rhythmic and methodical” sound that is the “march of time,” which Mary senses on the first page of the novel.

After This proceeds with an eerie sense that behind the events of life a force exists that might and probably will leave all of us bereft of promises of happiness and ease. Annie suffers the grief of helping her friend Susan have an abortion, who tries to make an Act of Contrition but finds it was “more a habit of mind than a plea for absolution.” The immediate effect of the abortion is that “she could to back to school next week, her senior year...go to the prom, go to graduation” (p. 159). Meanwhile Annie flies “from the waiting room…and into a nearby stairwell where the first sob had broken from her throat and echoed so loudly that she’d run heavily down the stairs just to cover the sound with her own footstep” (p. 163). Again, these are sounds that frighten. Soon, Pauline, an old friend of Mary’s, has an accident that makes her emotionally if not physically an invalid for life. The next day, just as Annie and Susan leave for school, up pulls to the Keane house a car “moving slowly in what might have been an illusionist’s elaborate billowing of exhaust” to bring the news of Jacob’s death (p. 199). Within thirty pages of the story, then, occur three tragic events, each sufficient to bring sadness to a life, but the accumulation of them is more than one woman can bear. Even a woman of faith might falter in such circumstances, and indeed “Mary Keane looked for signs of grace, good fortune, or simple evenhandedness but found none” (p. 187). The guardian angel to whom she taught her children to pray seems nothing but illusion, not unlike the “elaborate billowing of exhaust” pouring from the car that carries news that Jacob died in Vietnam.

How can such a story end? Just as the novel opens with Mary leaving a church, so the novel concludes with the family entering one. Clare, the youngest, still in her senior year of high school, becomes pregnant by her first boyfriend, a boy as young and naïve as she. They decide to marry. “The parents smiled weakly” at this decision, and the Monsignor who is to marry them thinks, “Trouble pile[s] on trouble” (pp. 275, 277). Significantly, the boy who is to play the piano at the wedding resembles the young pianist who lived in the apartment above Mary and John when they were first married, and who was playing his piano the morning they conceived Jacob. Like that musician, this one at the wedding simply knows how to play. “It’s a gift,” the priest says as he listens to the music. It, unlike other sounds in the novel, is not “banging” and “methodical.” Instead, the boy plays as if he is “a conduit for some music that was already there, that had always been there, in the air, some music, some pattern, sacred, profound, barely apprehensible, inscrutable, really, something just beyond the shell of earth and sky” (p. 278). In this brief description in the final pages of the novel lies the joy that seems to elude the characters elsewhere. If the “This” of the title consists of a hostile universe and a life shaped by war and death, then the “After” resides in the transcendent music with which the novel closes. The author does not allow us to indulge too much in such hope, however, for the image of the upcoming marriage is not encouraging: “the bridegroom looking like the oversize boy he was...well-scrubbed, determined, afraid” enters the church while “the women in their pale wedding clothes [gather] at the door” (p. 279). Indeed, life requires determination to endure it, and it makes sense to hesitate, and pale, before entering its challenges.

Works Cited and Consulted

Anderson, David E. 2006. “On Mortality and a Marriage. After This by Alice McDermott.” Religion and Ethics, December 29. Accessed May 19, 2009, at <http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/week1018/review.html>.

Gray, Paul. 2006. “Family Album.” New York Times, September 10. Accessed May 19, 2009, at  <http://www.nytimes.com/2006/09/10/books/review/gray.html?_r=1&oref=slogin>.

McDermott, Alice. 2007. After This. New York: The Dial Press (Random House).

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