Leaving Home, by Arthur Cavanaugh

This is an old-fashioned novel from 1970. It begins beautifully with a prologue that describes a cemetery scene and a subsequent repast at the Connerty family home in Brooklyn. These events are narrated by Robbie Connerty, the family’s youngest child. He will then recall for the reader his family history, which will become the main body of the book. We will learn how this family survived the Depression, World War II, and the travails typical of a lower middle-class family. But before he begins that story Robbie reveals that he harbors a secret—he does not say what it is—that has troubled him his entire life. And we deduce that he is recalling both the happy and sad events in his family’s history in order to relieve himself of a sense of guilt that he has carried with him his entire life.

The chapters that follow cover distinct periods of Robbie’s life, from the uncertainty of youth, to a sense of responsibility when his mother contracts tuberculosis, to his brief flirtation with art, to his growing understanding of family life and family love, to his eventual decision to become a writer, and finally to his discovery of love and marriage. These various narrations also deepen his relationships with his parents and his siblings as his family struggles to survive in the era’s floundering economy.

But while these events concern the same characters, they are often disconnected. Thus, many chapters reach their own conclusion, rather than lead to developments in the next chapter. As a result, this novel does not flow naturally. Which may explains how most chapters originally appeared separately in women’s magazines in the 1960s. What is not clear is how much these chapters were planned as separate short stories, and how much they were planned as continuing chapters in a novel. That is, were financial concerns behind publishing so many of these chapters originally as short stories. One reason that they probably appeared in such magazines, however, is that readers could identify with the mother, Catherine, who is the most deeply drawn character and is at the heart of most family decisions.

One also wonders how much this novel may be autobiographical. It certainly reads as such, and, as Cavanaugh states at the beginning, Catherine “was” his own mother. But it is his third novel, whereas autobiographical works are usually an author’s first or second novel. I lean toward autobiography, however, because the Brooklyn atmosphere is so deeply felt, and because the family relationships are so carefully rendered. And after all, it is the story of one life, Robbie’s, as well as the story of a family, that rings so true here. Moreover, if events in one chapter do not lead to the next, is this not how life is truly lived, even if not how novels are usually constructed.

Of course, these chapters do work as separate entities. There is a chapter on Robbie’s failure to climb a wall to prove himself. There is a chapter on his fights with his sister Roseanne, and another on their reconciliation, and still another on her departure to train as a missionary. There is a chapter on Hanna, a cleaning lady whom the family loves. There are chapters on his mother leaving home for a sanitarium upstate to recover from tuberculosis, and more chapters on how the family survives without her, such as planning for Christmas, and then, in another chapter, on preparing for her return. Not to forget a chapter on Robbie’s Aunt Tillie, who is the first to fill Robbie’s life with art. Or chapters on Robbie’s awareness of death, and then the discovery of love by brothers Daniel and Vinnie, as well as that of his other sister, Margaret. There are, finally, chapters on Robbie meeting his wife, on their marriage, and then on his impending fatherhood

Robbie’s secret, however, does not flow naturally to the surface. Indeed, when it is resurrected in a dramatic scene at the end. It seems rather arbitrary to me, as if the author sees it as the time to reveal the key to Robbie’s character. The secret concerns whether or not Robbie, the youngest child, has been wanted by his parents, and his doubts about it. And the justification of his doubts lies in a collection of photographs, which are resurrected just in time for the novel’s conclusion. But I do grant that the scene in which he discusses his doubts with his mother is indeed moving. It might even be the final scene in the book. For there is a sense of completion in this mother and son discussion that rounds off both their characters.

But the author follows this with an emotional bookend, with a return to the funeral repast for his mother. And we witness these grown children departing the family home in order to return to their own separate lives. This scene is quite moving as well, as we sense the separation that every family endures, when its members return to their own lives after many years as a close family unit.

Julian Moynahan closes his 1970 review with these words: “It takes the hand of an artist in remembrance like Robbie—that is, like Arthur Cavanaugh—to keep time at bay and the miracle intact through the registrations of a narrative art that is always faithful to historical detail and the integrity of persons, and draws its finest energies from love and a deeply felt acceptance of the inevitability of death.”

These comments indeed reflect the intent of the author, and are also belong to the era in which the reviewer wrote them. But I have called this an old-fashioned novel, because I do not believe such qualities are celebrated today. Or, rather, accepted as ideal elements in a literary work. Few literary stalwarts write today of family love, of family integrity, of a family’s acceptance of poverty and death. And critics also do not accept today obvious symbols—like a collection of photographs, particularly when they so blatantly rise to the surface, in this case fortuitously from beneath a blanket in the Connerty basement.

I was drawn to this novel because this family is both Irish and Catholic. But if their nationality is evoked here, their religion is not. And so as deeply as this family experience is felt, it is missing a spiritual element, and does not encourage me to seek out further Cavanaugh novels. They belong to a different era. Today I prefer novels that explore the heart and the soul’s inner life. And certainly not one where the absence of photographs raises a character’s internal doubts. (May, 2018)

Someone, by Alice McDermott

I should get tired of writing the phrase: This is a beautiful novel. But I cannot, not when it is a beautiful novel. Even if this 2013 work is not structured, as I prefer, chronologically. Even if it is not concerned with story. Even if it is concerned with just one person, its narrator, Marie, from when she is seven years old to when she is enduring the infirmities of old age.

But even more, I believe, this novel is concerned with life. As personified by Marie. Which is probably the reason for the title: Someone. Marie is someone, someone McDermott makes us concerned about. Not for what she is, as much as for what she experiences. Which is life.

Yes, she is plain and nearsighted. And when jilted by a supposed boy friend, she is near despair. ”Who’s going to love me?” she asks. And her kind brother Gabe answers: “Someone. Someone will.” And, yes, this gives the novel its title; but it is meant to do more, I believe. It is meant to give Marie a more generic life, to make her represent more than herself, to make her represent everyone. To make her represent the life that everyone experiences.

And this is why McDermott does not tell Marie’s story directly. Why she jumps around chronologically. We are not to focus on Marie. We are to focus on the life she lives. As representative of the life we all live.

Not that it is easy to get used to a structure in which childhood, adolescence, motherhood, and old age do not appear in sequence. That is, we experience her first heartbreak and her eventual marriage; her brother’s brief stint as a Catholic priest, his loss of his vocation, and his breakdown; her parents’ deaths; her “temporary” ten-year job in a funeral home; life at home with squabbling children; and the changing world of Irish-Americans. Marie labels everyone as fools for thinking anyone cares about us in a world in which we are victims of suffering, injustice, and mortality. But the novel suggests many do care. And the life of fools that we endure is a condition of this life that the novel celebrates.

Because Marie’s story is not told in sequence, we read of her pregnancy before her marriage, of her grown children before she gives birth. As a result, we read to learn not what will happen next to Marie, but to learn how what has already happened grew out of her earlier life. Thus, there is a different kind of suspense, based on a different kind of reader curiosity.

As with life, this novel reaches no conclusion. The ending recalls the opening pages, but what really happens when Marie recalls the death of a childhood friend from a fall on cellar stairs, as she herself climbs down her stairs in the dark? Is it that she has just helped to protect her brother Gabe’s life? And now: “We’ll see what happens next.” Who knows? Just as I was not sure why her beloved brother left the priesthood and later was confined to an asylum. Yes, there were hints and rumors, but, as in life, there are no sure answers; and McDermott offers an anecdote by husband Tom to stress this.

It also happens that Gabe is the most interesting character here, undoubtedly because he changes and yet there is no explanation for those changes. Because of the author’s skill and compassion, however, we feel not frustration as a reader but a greater understanding of Marie’s own concern.

One can only conclude that this uncertainty is part of the ordinary life that the author is depicting here. For that ordinariness is at the heart of this novel. Indeed nothing extraordinary occurs here—nothing besides death, childbirth, madness, and love—that would make Marie’s life different from any other. And the key to conveying that ordinariness is a prose style that is simple, that itself is ordinary, that focuses on the presumably insignificant details, on intimate family scenes, on familiarity with both physical and emotional pain, and, overall, on an empathy for the human condition.

Kevin Spinale sums this up in America. “It is the story of woman’s life—someone named Marie.…Yet, the majority of the story is empty, emphasizing the beauty of the story that is given—how fragile and subtle someone’s life is. How indefinite and ordinary and beautiful anyone’s life can be, if there is someone, anyone with whom one can share it.”

And Roxanna Robinson adds in the Washington Post: “Fear and vulnerability, joy and passion, the capacity for love and pain and grief. Those are common to us all. Those are the things that great novelists explore. And it’s this exploration, made with tenderness, wisdom and caritas, that’s at the heart of Alice McDermott’s masterpiece.”

This is not a novel that required research, or a special knowledge. It simply required a way of life to have been lived, and then to capture it in a simple prose that matches its subject matter. It required a middle-class Catholic life lived among a changing urban society. And an author who understands, identifies with, and sympathizes with that way of life.

Interestingly, this is a novel written out of a Catholic sensibility but not one in which Catholicism plays a major role. Its heroine Marie, indeed, rebels against her faith’s restrictions, just as she does against the conventional wisdom of others, including her parents and her doctors. Even when her brother Gabe leaves the priesthood, it is accepted rather than explored.

In an interview, McDermott calls herself a contrarian. One wonders how much her Catholicism has contributed to that sense of herself. For the Catholic way of life is not only separate from the mainstream of traditional American society, it is also out of the mainstream of the traditional literary world. Catholics, with their own values, look at life differently. And surely this novel looks at an American life differently from most current novels. I refer not to the structure but to the ordinary life shown here in that structure.

To sum up, may this not be the capstone of McDermott’s career. But it could be. For it simplifies a novel down to its basics. It is about one life, and yet about all lives. It focuses on the ordinary, but the ordinary that encompasses all our lives. It is about the limitations to our knowledge of others, rather than the usual omnipotent delineation of others by the author. And it is about writing simply, without the flourishes of an author calling attention to herself. (July, 2014)