The story James Carroll tells in THE CITY BELOW focuses on two brothers, Terry and Nick Doyle, on the tensions between them, and on their contrasting relationships to the working-class Irish community based in Charlestown, a section of Boston, from which they have sprung. Terry’s vocation to the priesthood gives him a special status within the community, but when he rejects ordination, he embarks on a journey that will take him physically and spiritually away from his origins. Yet he is never able to extricate himself completely from those origins. Nick never leaves but masters the art of manipulating the mores of the tribe for his own gain; it is, moreover, possible to see Nick’s alliance with the mafia as a kind of abandonment of his community that parallels Terry’s.
There are in fact multiple parallels in the stories of the two men, and those stories are used by Carroll to illuminate the history of their community from 1960 to 1984. Actual historical figures such as Cardinal Cushing of Boston and Senator Ted Kennedy play significant roles, and actual historical events such as the school busing conflict are embedded in the narrative. Much of the novel’s interest rests on its portrayal of a traditionalist community in a time of change.
Carroll does not fully resolve the difficulties inherent in the attempt to portray convincing characters who must also represent sociocultural trends. Even Terry and Nick are often compromised as characters as they are called to serve as examples. Important characters such as Terry’s wife and his best friend hardly exist except as illustrations of the author’s concerns. Carroll’s melodramatic impulses also often override authentic characterization. The demonization of Nick constitutes an especially disappointing flattening out of an initially complex character.
Nevertheless, the novel confronts big subjects and treats them with a seriousness many will respect. Readers who are already Carroll fans will find in this novel many of the qualities they have come to value in his work. Carroll here reaffirms his claim to the title of preeminent novelist of the life of Irish American Catholics in general and of the Boston Irish in particular.