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.)