OAKLAND -- Do not mistake the slender 240 pages of Alice McDermott's first new novel in seven years, "Someone" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013), for anything less than a heavyweight entry onto the literary scene. Unlike the book's protagonist, Marie Commeford, who once "forgot to remember something," the remarkably told story of an uncomplicated woman's life is an unforgettable knockout.
For Bay Area readers, an opportunity to hear McDermott read and speak about her book at Montclair Presbyterian Church on Oct. 8, is a rarified bonus. Author visits offer a peek beyond the window dressing of book industry marketing. Although a reading's purpose is promotional, the experience is akin to looking into a well-lit home at night. Except in this case, the "scene" surveyed is the writer's mind: His or her thoughts and practices are the inhabitants on which outsiders may spy.
Set in pre-Depression Brooklyn, "Someone" details the life -- and many deaths therein -- of an Irish-American family. Center stage is assertive Marie, "a bold piece" as described by her stoic mama, but a young girl rendered vaguely angelic by virtue of her extreme near—sightedness. Marie's lack of vision is physical, not mental. Gabe, her seminary-seeking older brother, and her father, for whom she devotedly "keeps vigil" at the end of his 9-to-5 work days, do not elude her focus. From her brother, she gleans understanding of holiness and its lapses; from her father, she begins to favor the smell of alcohol on a man's breath. The learned lessons from family, neighbors and employers arrive in McDermott's fluid narrative as Marie ages from 7 to the last days of her life. Inevitably -- and not tragically, due to the McDermott's skillful pen -- her sight and insight develop inversely: the former diminishes as the latter is gained.
Death is pervasive throughout the novel, but it's not oppressive, a distinguishing accomplishment in this and the National Book Award winning author's previous books. The comic tragedy of large-footed Pegeen Chahob, a neighbor girl who tumbles down a staircase to her premature death, tempers the calamitous, swift blow when Marie's best friend's mother dies while giving birth. And the exquisitely humorous conversations of the old ladies and nuns gathered in the top floor parlor of the funeral home where Marie is employed, contrast the protracted, gaping loss of her father. Even her mother's demise and Gabe's suicide attempt are used to good purpose. There is no sensationalism, instead, death's fear and life's comfort -- stolid love -- are a means by which the family's evolving relationships step into the next chapter of their interwoven lives.
"Someone" is her brother's answer to teenage Marie's haunting, post-breakup question, "Who is going to love me?" Many do, especially the thin, balding Tom, who becomes her husband and the father of their two children. And she, in turn, finds something enduring to cherish in Tom, a simple man who loves to talk.
"There would be his willingness to bestow upon me the power to reassure him. He would trust me with his happiness," writes McDermott.
As Marie's surroundings hemorrhage -- the neighborhood succumbing to gangs and garbage -- work, marriage and motherhood buttress her sturdy, later life realizations. Urban decay is balanced by human, internal growth: another example of the bittersweet dualities McDermott tosses of as if they were easy achievements and not the result of the hard, hidden work of writing well. Details are delivered in delicious bits and pieces (an elderly woman's calves are "veined with gray and blue like marble pillars") or poetic turns ("In the fading evening light, the stoop beneath by thighs, as warm as breath when I first sat down, now exhaled a shallow chill.") Other, equally subtle blends -- humor and tenderness sandwiched between pain and pettiness, or bold determination underscored by shimmering hesitation -- make the wait for McDermott's memorable novel a long, but worthwhile exercise leading to gratification.
What: Award-winning author Alice McDermott will discuss her new book, "Someone"
Where: Montclair Presbyterian Church, 5701 Thornhill Ave., Oakland
When: 7 p.m., Oct. 8
Information: Contact Montclair Presbyterian Church at http://www.mpcfamily.org/ or call 510-339-1131.