Essays and Criticism

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...

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