Father, forgive me: McDermott's vanishing world

Alice McDermott writes of suburban summers, of first trips on the city bus, and of whistling past the graveyard. She writes of a world where sidewalks are the color of Necco wafers, uncles drink themselves to death, and mothers wear cotton shirtwaists.
Even as a subtext for a more exclusive story about life in Irish Catholic Long Island in the early 1960s, this is a worldview that is inherently familiar. Anyone who has been a child in a grown-up world knows these things. (Except the shirtwaists… what are those?)
The Maeves and Fionas and Theresas and Bridies in McDermott’s novels are not entirely fictional. When she won the National Book Award in 1998, McDermott told journalists that sticking with the place and time of her own coming-of-age was an efficiency. “It saves me a lot of research time,” she said.
But the enormous popularity of her work (the National Book Award followed two Pulitzer nominations and precipitated many weeks on bestseller lists) suggests a craft detached from research and an audience larger than readers with nostalgia for Queens.
It’s about time, says Robert Wilken, president of the St. Anselm Institute for Catholic Thought, who sees “a significant decline in the Catholic literary culture in the last fifty years.” Not many people spring to mind, he laments, when one needs a speaker on the topic of “The Catholic Novel.”
Luckily, McDermott– whose novels include Charming Billy and Child of my Heart– is also recognized by the Catholic intelligentsia. Perhaps even more importantly, says Wilken, she writes about the Church with sympathy (if not with the reverence of Flannery O’Connor or the torment of Eugene O’Neill).
Fully one-third of UVA undergraduates are Catholic, according to Wilken. Most are kids with no closer association with the ebbing world of McDermott’s books than their non-Catholic peers; no one in Child of My Heart goes to public school or needs to fly home for Thanksgiving. The spinster sisters of At Weddings and Wakes knew nothing about Wahoos.
If the last half-century has disrupted every insular ethnic community in America, McDermott’s is no exception. But children still board the bus for the first time alone. And regardless of whether they are Catholic, bound for Brooklyn, or kin to a woman who once wore shirtwaists, they probably gape at the passing cemetery. If, that is, they’re not busy with their cell phone.
National Book Award winner Alice McDermott speaks on “The Catholic Novel,” Wednesday, February 26, at 5:30pm in UVA’s Ruffner Hall. She will read from her work at 11am on February 27 at the UVA bookstore. Sponsored by the St. Anselm Institute for Catholic Thought and the UVA Creative Writing Program. 924-6709.

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