Alice McDermott sets her novels in the places and among the people she knows best, the Irish Catholic families who had put down their roots in Brooklyn, New York, and those who, like her own parents, had moved out to suburban Long Island in the hope of offering their children greater opportunities. As it turned out, while the new environment did give the young more freedom, they lost the sense of stability that they would have had in the tight-knit community in which their parents had been reared.
Indeed, McDermott’s novels are pervaded by the theme of loss. Not only do her young people lose their innocence, but they also do not replace it with the mature faith that had sustained previous generations. Their loneliness drives them into marriage, but they soon find that they still feel as isolated as they had before. With the births of their children comes new hope: Surely family life will prove to be the antidote to loneliness. The harmonious existence of which they had dreamed turns out to be another illusion, however. The children squabble with each other and rebel against their parents. Eventually they desert their parents, who, despite all that they have shared, are still strangers to each other and thus quite alone.
McDermott’s novels are not essentially pessimistic, however. If loss is a fact of life, so also is the power of the imagination to transcend grim reality. This gift is reflected in the flights of fancy in which many of her characters indulge. It is also evident in McDermott’s use of language. Her lyrical style transforms the ordinary into the extraordinary, a beach or a backyard into a place of great beauty and magical possibilities. The hope McDermott offers her characters and her readers, however, is based on more than aesthetics. Her vision of human existence is in keeping with her Catholic faith: Although we are fallen creatures living in a fallen world, we can obtain redemption through divine grace.
That Night is the story of two teenage lovers who are separated by fate and circumstances. It is set in the early 1960’s in a Long Island suburb. The narrator, now a grown woman, was a ten-year-old girl when the events took place that would change her community forever. Before that summer night, everyone felt secure. Each morning the men went off to work, and at the day’s end they came home; meanwhile, their wives stayed home and kept house, periodically gathering to gossip a bit. Their children had the run of the neighborhood.
Sheryl, who is the Juliet of the novel, differs from the other sixteen-year-old girls in the neighborhood in two ways: She was the first of them to reach puberty, and she was the first to lose a parent. Everyone remembers how shattered she was when her father died. Otherwise, Sheryl is rather ordinary. She is not especially pretty, nor does she look any different from other girls her age, or at least from those who associate with the hot-rodding toughs at the local high school. Sheryl’s boyfriend, Rick, is one of them. The neighbors agree that if her father had been alive, Sheryl would never have been permitted to date someone with Rick’s bad reputation and abysmal prospects.
In the first chapter of the novel, the narrator describes the events that led up to a confrontation between Rick’s friends and the neighborhood fathers. After days of trying to reach Sheryl by telephone, Rick has led his friends to her house. The neighborhood watches while he stands on the front lawn, bellowing her name; they see him push her mother down when she insists that Sheryl is no longer there; and when the other boys drive their cars onto the lawn and emerge from them carrying chains, the neighborhood men seize snow shovels and baseball bats and rush into battle. Soon the police arrive, and the boys flee. No one is seriously injured. The safe little neighborhood has been threatened by violent outsiders, however; those who live there will never again have the same sense of security.
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