Alice McDermott is a good writer. She casts a wise and loving eye over her turf, the suburban New York City Irish Catholic scene during the baby boom years. In several books, especially Charming Billy, she successfully evokes the humor and pathos of her chosen people. She's particularly good on the bonds of family, the ways in which fealty to one's tribe can simultaneously prop up and chafe a soul.
Unfortunately, After This is not one of her better novels. It's not even a novel, actually, but a series of linked episodes about the Keane family as they make their non-reflective way from the fifties to the seventies. This structure can work, and has, back to Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, which used a series of small moments in small lives to say something profound about a place and a time. But the episodes in After This are too elliptical to build upon, and the fractured structure becalms the plot.
McDermott has set herself the challenge of writing something interesting about determinedly average people. Mother Mary has almost resigned herself to spinsterhood when she meets John, an older WW II veteran, at a lunch counter in Manhattan. They marry, move to the suburbs, create four children. The oldest, Jacob is a tender, often feckless boy. His younger brother Michael, more wised-up and aggressive, torments Jacob throughout their childhood. Bookish Annie stands in for the aspiring intellectuals in blue collar families, and baby Clare is a simpler girl, beloved by all. Because McDermott leaps from person to person, we don't spend enough time with any one of the Keanes to become invested in their doings. The most sympathetic character in the book is Mary's friend Pauline. Pauline at least has a feisty, resentful attitude toward the world she lives in, which lends poignancy to her late-life breakdown.
This is a book of small moments. The big events - WWII and Vietnam, the love affairs and accidental pregnancies - happen offstage. We get the reverberations in the lives of the Keanes, but it's hard to sympathize with such passive people. Take Jacob getting drafted as a perfect example. It's 1970, and he draws a low draft number. There's no real debate about whether he'll go to Vietnam, which is odd in itself, since most young men of his age and intelligence debated this endlessly. We don't see his decision-making or learn how he feels about the war; he's simply swept away on the tide of government policy. He's surrendered before the first shot is fired, which makes it hard to work up the requisite pity for the bad fate that befalls him.
The hard-bitten Catholicism of the Irish provides the background music of this book. Since the Church and the Parish are so central to the Keanes, it's logical for the reader to wonder whether McDermott sees Catholicism as a good or bad force in their lives. Even though there are scenes of confession and communion, priestly musings and absolutions, and a nun's anti-feminist rant, you'll finish the novel still wondering. The Keanes treat Catholicism like the weather: something to accept or avoid, but not to question.
There are two good set pieces in the middle of the book, which would have worked equally well as standalone short stories. One involves Michael getting drawn into the social scene at an oddball bar near his upstate New York campus, which is his way of rebelling against the humdrum life he sees lined up in front of him like another shot of cheap whiskey. The other is a funny send-up of British academia during Annie's year abroad. And there are specific passages that achieve a quiet grace, including a lovely scene about grace itself that happens right at the end of the book during Clare's wedding.
If you came of age in the New York area during the Eisenhower/Kennedy/Johnson years, you can read After This for the way McDermott's precise prose evokes the sense memory of that time - like pawing through the old Polaroids someone in the family tucked away in a drawer. If you're looking for new insights about the era, or to be swept up in the drama of an Irish American family wrestling with its fate, look elsewhere.