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People Top 5
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- May 18, 1992
- Vol. 37
- No. 19
Picks and Pans: Pages
Set in the 1950s and '60s, McDermott's extraordinary third novel chronicles three generations of an Irish-American family as seen through the often puzzled eyes of three siblings. Their world is narrow—bounded by innocence, Catholicism and frequent visits with their mother's three spinster sisters and their great-aunt, "Momma." Years earlier, Momma had married their grandfather when his wife, Annie (Momma's sister), had died in childbirth.
For the children, Momma's place in the household is, in a phrase repeated through the novel like part of a liturgy, "part of everything they knew." How she came to the United States, moved in with Annie and Annie's husband, Jack, how, subsequently, she cared for Annie's bereaved children and married Jack, who died as suddenly as his first wife. Part of everything the children know includes their aunts Veronica, who has a problem with alcohol; Agnes, a secretary and the most worldly of the sisters; and May, a former nun whose fate, revealed early, gives the novel much of its delicate pathos.
The events the author chronicles are often small—tedious visits to the aunts, a mailman's timorous courtship, a Christmas celebration where "the women seemed to pull the old grievances from kitchen drawers and rattling china cabinets...." Yet McDermott's pitch-perfect rendering and her rich prose give such moments an almost mythic quality. (Farrar Strauss Giroux, $20)
by Geoffrey Wolff
The author of five novels, but best known for Black Sun and the highly acclaimed The Duke of Deception: Memories of My Father, Wolff now presents himself.
This enormously readable grab bag ranges far and wide: Wolff's seven-year career as a journalist and book reviewer; his adventures, fresh out of Princeton, teaching English literature in Istanbul; the high incidence of alcoholism among American writers; an effort to scale the Matterhorn; sailing his 30-foot boat, Blackwing, from the Bahamas to the Rhode Island shore.
Wolff is a charming, if somewhat crotchety, raconteur (as a young man, he says, he aspired to become a "virtuoso of the well-timed harrumph"), and most readers, by the time they reach his title piece, will find that he has thoroughly endeared himself. A Day at the Beach tells of a hellish family vacation—Geoffrey, wife Priscilla, two teenage sons—on Sint Maarten, the Dutch part of the Caribbean island of Saint Martin. Whatever can possibly go wrong, does. Prescription medications are accidentally left behind; the Wolffs' rented condo abuts both the island's jet landing strip and a hotel with a public-address system ("Please, peoples. We have many complaints about pee-pee and doo-doo in swimming pool"); they are robbed—credit cards, cash, traveler's checks. Then Wolff has a heart attack, after which the family returns to Rhode Island where, in major surgery, his defective aortic valve is replaced. How is he now? Fine, it seems. "My aorta is carbon and Dacron, simplicity itself," he reports. "It was fabricated in St. Paul, Minnesota, where...quality control (I don't like the look of that weld, Sven) is top-of-the-line. It comes with a lifetime warranty, I'm quite sure."
In Sint Maarten, Wolff tells us, he lost his temper when gouged by a shopkeeper. "Fifteen dollars for Sea & Ski is not right. I will tell about this. 'I am,' I explained, 'a writer!' " He is indeed, and his book is a major treat. (Knopf, $22)
by Joyce Carol Oates
Initially, one might wonder why Joyce Carol Oates wanted to write this novella. Chappaquiddick, Teddy, Mary Jo, the bridge. All that, again. Come on.
Yet Black Water, a fictional work inspired by the Kennedy incident, is utterly compelling as Oates replays a drowning woman's final thoughts. In doing so she brings humanity and dignity to a bright young lady who's temporarily smitten with one of our most famous national figures.
A few of the facts have been changed. Kelly Kelleher, 26, is spending a Fourth of July weekend in the '80s at her friend's beach house on Grayling Island, when the Senator joins the festivities. Although he is old enough to be her father, there is an immediate attraction between Kelly and the man who had been the subject of her senior thesis. It's an afternoon of hot dogs, flirting, booze, a walk and inevitable kiss—followed by a hurried drive to the ferry.
Kelly recalls these events as she sits submerged and seat-belted in the black murky water, trying desperately to keep in touch with a constantly diminishing air bubble. She recalls the sloshing vodka and tonic that the Senator held as he took the "short cut," the bridge, the railing—and then, the water. As the Senator kicks against her to get out, she grabs his leg. And then he's gone, leaving her with nothing but her air bubble and his shoe.
Kelly's memories of her childhood, the party and the evening ahead come as a relief to the reader. Her fantasies of the Senator returning to rescue her come at us like a blow. She is simply too decent to doubt it for a minute.
Black Water is powerfully written. Reading it is a wrenching experience. (Dutton, $17)
- Joanne Kaufman,
- Jeff Brown,
- Carol Peace.
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