Alice McDermott 1953–
American novelist and short story writer.
The following entry provides an overview of McDermott's career through 1993.
In her fiction McDermott frequently emphasizes the subjectivity of perception and the mutability of memory. She explores these issues by focalizing her narratives through the perspectives of multiple characters and by presenting their interrelated stories in an anti-chronological fashion. Children particularly interest McDermott, and her novels often focus on the events that vitiate their innocence, inducting them into an adult awareness of loss and death.
McDermott was born to a middle-class family and raised in the suburbs of Long Island, New York. She earned a B. A. from the State University of New York at Oswego, then worked briefly as a clerk-typist for a New York vanity publisher before enrolling in the graduate writing program at the University of New Hampshire. After completing the program, McDermott published several short stories in various women's magazines. Her first novel, A Bigamist's Daughter, appeared in 1982. Following its publication, she began teaching creative writing at the University of California, San Diego, where she completed That Night (1987), which was nominated for a National Book Award. McDermott published her third novel, At Weddings and Wakes, in 1992. Currently, she teaches creative writing at American University.
A Bigamist's Daughter concerns Elizabeth Connelly, the editor-in-chief of a New York vanity publishing house. Elizabeth becomes interested in her late parents' relationship when an author, Tupper Daniels, approaches her with a stalled manuscript celebrating the joys a bigamist brings to his scattered wives. The two become lovers, and as Tupper solicits Elizabeth's knowledge of her family history, he reworks it into his novel. Over the course of the story, it becomes apparent that Elizabeth's romantic expectations and the nature of her relationship with Tupper have been shaped by her perennially absent father, whom she suspects was a bigamist, and by a recent affair with a married man. The novel's third-person narrative is periodically interrupted by first-person passages in which Elizabeth recalls the sustained excitement she and her mother shared while waiting, respectively, for father and husband to return. That Night resembles A Bigamist's Daughter in that it, too, undermines conventional romanticism. Set in a lower-middle-class Long Island suburb during the early 1960s, McDermott's second novel opens with a description of the night in question, when the narrator, then a ten-year-old girl, witnesses the pivotal event of the novel. Rick, a teenage underachiever, and his friends lay siege to his girlfriend Sheryl's house, demanding to see her without realizing that she is pregnant and has been sent to stay with relatives in Ohio. Brandishing snow shovels and other "weapons," the neighborhood fathers confront the young mob; in the clumsy fight that follows, they vanquish Rick and his friends. As the novel unfolds, touching on events preceding and ensuing from this melee, the narrator reveals that she has long cherished romantic images of Sheryl and Rick. Moreover, she discloses that, like her, both have gone on to lead mundane adult lives which refute their—and her—adolescent belief in love's ability to triumph over adverse circumstances. At Weddings and Wakes, again set during the early 1960s, is also focalized largely through children to suggest how experience dispels innocence. Although the three Dailey children live on Long Island, their mother, Lucy Towne Dailey, frequently takes them to visit her widowed stepmother and three unmarried sisters in Brooklyn. The bulk of the novel's events occur in the Townes' dark, oppressively-furnished Brooklyn apartment, where the children observe their female relatives' melancholic commitment to remembering the dead and the departed. Because of the regularity of their visits, they also witness their Aunt May's long courtship, joyous wedding, and sudden death—events that catalyze their mature understanding of mortality and loss. Due to the third-person narrator's revelation early in the novel that May will die four days after her long-awaited nuptials, readers experience the wedding preparations with a mournful foreknowledge which intensifies McDermott's message that death permeates life.
A Bigamist's Daughter received unusually widespread critical attention and high praise for a first novel. While several reviewers contended that the characters in this work are thinly developed, many praised McDermott's unflinching portrait of emotional and social isolation. Appreciating a similar lack of sentimentality in That Night, critics have commended McDermott's second novel's detailed evocation of life in lower-middle-class Long Island during the early 1960s and its realistic, generous characterization of Sheryl. Others, however, have questioned the relationship between McDermott's narrator and the thwarted teen lovers around whom That Night ostensibly revolves, wondering how such a young character could recall so much about the events in question as well as events she could not have witnessed. Like That Night, At Weddings and Wakes has been extolled for its rich period detail and for its insight into complex, often ambivalent, familial intimacies. Several critics have praised At Weddings and Wakes—indeed all of McDermott's works—as celebrating the ordinary. Many have observed her affinity for everyday language, noting that she favors complex syntactical patterns, constructing lengthy sentences in which short clauses proliferate to increasing emotional effect. Representative of the critics who applaud her for eschewing minimalism, David Leavitt has maintained that McDermott "gloriously rejects the notion that this betrayed and bankrupt world can be rendered only in the spare, impersonal prose that has become the standard of so much contemporary fiction." Instead, he has argued, she produces fiction "of almost 19th-century richness … [celebrating] the life of [the] suburban world at the same moment that [she] mourns that world's failures and disappointments."