That Night

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

That Night is the story of a suburban Romeo and Juliet whose love is doomed not by family enmity but by community custom, which enforces the termination of the relationship when young, unmarried lovers produce a child. It is also the story of the unnamed narrator, who as an adult back in her childhood home is trying to understand her own failing marriage by recalling the great, tragic love affair she observed during her tenth summer.

The tale is no less poignant because the setting is American suburbia, where the song of the nightingale is replaced by the sounds of swimmingpool cleaners and power mowers. The object of Rick Slater’s affections is not locked in a tower, but flown to Ohio, and when he cannot reach her by telephone, Rick looks for her in the mall—a suffering knight wandering in quest of his lady through aisles of plastic sandals and cheap perfume. When Rick and his young male friends decide to storm her home, where they believe her to be imprisoned, they drive their cars onto her front lawn, arm themselves with chains, and do battle with the neighborhood men, whose shields are garbage-can lids. Searching for trophies after the fight, children triumphantly snatch pieces of broken glass from the battlefield, a suburban lawn scarred by tire tracks.

Although settings such as these have frequently been used to satirize contemporary life, Alice McDermott’s intentions are different from those of many other writers. Instead of comically or ironically examining the folkways of her milieu, she focuses on the human dramas which occur as commonly in suburbia as in any place where people live. Instead of satirizing her characters, she presents them sympathetically, as they yearn for a permanence which they can never achieve, but even in their inevitable loss, attain a kind of dignity. Therefore, despite the dime-store cosmetic counters, the supermarket checkout stands, and the filling stations which might seem to make up a comic landscape, That Night is tragic in tone, from the epic battle which begins the book to the noble revelation with which it concludes.

The novel is organized as an exploration rather than as a chronological account. It begins with the battle, teenage hoodlums against respectable fathers who defend their daughters and their homes against local enemies as a few years before they had defended them against the Axis. After describing the battle, the narrator fills in the gaps, recalling what she heard as a child about the development of the love affair between Rick and Sheryl and relating the results of the battle: Rick’s jail term and the disappearance of Sheryl’s family from the neighborhood. Near the end of the book, just before Rick’s reappearance as a seedy husband and father, the narrator further expands the significance of the story by confiding that, as the most dramatic incident of her childhood, it has taken on the dimension of a myth which must be understood if she is to make sense of her own failed marriage and dim future.

Although all the characters in That Night share the human need for permanence, their quests take different directions. The suburban families have established a society which fosters the illusion of immutability. Having won World War II, the men have built houses in which their families are to live safely, immune from change, even from death. The patterns are reassuring. Every family has a father and a mother; the father’s role is to provide for the family, the mother’s is to keep the home and produce children. Every detail of life, even to the clothes people wear, is dependent on custom: If a couple ventures forth all dressed up, for example, the community knows that the occasion is either a wake or an anniversary.

It is not surprising that the neighborhood children thrive in so secure an atmosphere. They do notice, however, that there are breaks in the pattern, and they perceive their parents’ behavior when those breaks cannot be ignored. When the doorbell rings at night, it is the father who leads the procession to the door, acting out the ritual which should ensure the family’s safety. Even the head of the family, however, cannot restore his neighbor’s dead wife, the child’s dead mother. This sense of helplessness is certainly the motivation for the general anger directed at Sheryl’s mother, Ann, when she cries...

(The entire section is 1789 words.)

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The phrase that titles Alice McDermott’s second novel, That Night, names also the novel’s central scene, around which in backward and forward sequence the whole story is told. Vivid in its presentation, the scene revolves in the memory of the unnamed narrator in much the same way that the cars belonging to Rick and his teenage buddies move slowly around and around the several blocks of the suburban neighborhood that provides the major setting of the novel. Slowly, the cars move in intricate patterns in and around the block, passing silently by the Sayleses’ house, sometimes pausing and then in slow motion taking up again the intricate patterns. The monotonous movement of the cars around and around becomes ominous, suggesting a funeral, the circlings of mourners around a coffin as they pay last respects. Indeed, in a way, this procession does mark a death—the end of a dream of love strong enough to conquer death. Rick’s cry rising above the engines of the idling cars and the window fans of the deserted houses is a kind of death wail, a poignant keen, for his lost love.

When Rick agrees with his leather-jacketed buddies that a proper form of behavior for those warring with a dominant society is to invade the enemy’s territory and carry off the enemy’s treasure, he must already know the inevitable conclusion, for men of warring tribes do not surrender their women to invaders. Neither do the T-shirted suburbanites. Rick’s demand to Mrs. Sayles that she send for Sheryl is already frustrated by Mrs. Sayles’ previous action. Sheryl is no longer there. She has been spirited off by the women, who play their roles as if they have been well rehearsed. Rick makes the mistake of reaching for Mrs. Sayles, however, and at that moment the men of the neighborhood, all more than a decade away from their soldiering in World War II, take up hoes, bats, sticks, and the tops of garbage cans to attack the boys, who have come equipped with...

(The entire section is 799 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

A relative newcomer to the novelists’ calling, Alice McDermott grew up during the decades when women’s issues came to the forefront of the concerns of people in the English-speaking world. Standard feminist texts were being published as McDermott made her way through school; she could not have helped but be influenced by so dominant a movement. That Night is not a feminist text through proclamation; it is a feminist text in its rendering of the social order both within and without families in Suburbia, U.S.A., during a short period in American history when shared values were stable, when a sense of community was strong, and when men and women knew their “place” in family life.

Men were the breadwinners; women were the caretakers of the home. Men did “manly” things—going to and from work in elaborate machines, using less elaborate machines to cut grass and keep the yards tidy, and using shoulder muscles to lift heavy objects such as garbage cans brought to curbs. These men had just returned from soldiering in another world war—the last, they thought—to save home and family and shared American values. They did not anticipate another war that would call their sons to “duty” and possible death.

Consequently, the men in That Night rally to save home and hearth from a group of teenagers—black-jacketed “hoods” in hot rods who represent a threat to a way of life that the dominant culture holds sacred. The male bonding that results confirms their identities as they...

(The entire section is 625 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Balliett, Whitney “Books: Families.” The New Yorker 63 (August 17, 1987): 71. A discussion of the richness of That Night as compared with minimalist fiction that also deals with middle-class values but in spare and bleak ways. Balliett also mentions McDermott’s prose style and her use of amplifying and overlapping clauses in sentences. He agrees that the book is about life in the suburbs but insists that That Night is more than that. It is about the adolescent passion of a first love that can never be repeated.

Leavitt, David. “Fathers, Daughters, and Hoodlums.” The New York Times Book Review, April 19, 1987, 1, 29-30. Leavitt also points to the differences between McDermott’s work and that of minimalists whose settings and characters are similar but whose tones, moods, and themes are different. Whereas minimalist work is ironic and bleak, McDermott’s is accepting and elegiac. The difference is primarily in the baroque richness of the language, and the complexity of the moral vision McDermott presents, Leavitt says, invests her novel with historical authenticity.

Towers, Robert. “All American Novels.” New York Review of Books 34 (January 21, 1988): 26-27. Towers calls That Night a pleasant piece of bittersweet Americana, faithful to historical time and place. He suggests that too much praise has gone to the novel. Nothing in the book is in any way remarkable, Towers concludes—not characters, not descriptions, not use of language. The novel is, however, Towers says, a small, decent work that is successful within the limits the author sets.