‘Castle of the Imagination’

Alice McDermott
Alice McDermott; drawing by David Levine

Child of My Heart is Alice McDermott’s fifth work of fiction. The fourth, Charming Billy, won the National Book Award, and was a best seller, as was At Weddings and Wakes. Both of these novels explore, subtly but ruthlessly, the same complex world—that of second- and third-generation emigrant Irish, living angry, ruined, melancholy, occasionally hopeful lives in and around Brooklyn and Queens, mainly in the Fifties and early Sixties, with summer vacations spent on Long Island. Both show the stories made from events as being coexistent with, different from, and frequently more important than the events themselves.

Both books are expertly told from multiple points of view—At Weddings and Wakes mainly by children but with slices of adult perspective, Charming Billy mainly by adults, with child’s-eye vignettes. Child of My Heart is different: it takes the world of Billy and Weddings and turns it inside out. Long Island is not an idyllic interlude—the place where Billy meets his false true love, the place where the kids can briefly escape the carpings, weepings, and wranglings of their extended family. Instead it’s almost the entire setting. And Child of My Heart has a single narrator; so, though it’s if anything even more focused on stories, and why and how we make them, and what we make out of them, these stories are all told to us by a single person.

That person is Theresa, fifteen-year-old baby sitter par excellence. Here it should be mentioned that if your preferred reading is about trench warfare and serial killers, this book is not for you. It is not a boys’ book: there’s a good deal too much diaper-changing and bottle-sucking in it for that. The characters are mostly children, and they behave a lot like real children—that is to say, often quite tediously. (Some readers may cherish the subversive hope, at least at moments, that Edward Gorey will turn up and hurl a few of the tinies off a plinth. To put it more kindly, this feeling may simply be a tribute to the author’s art.)

One of the noteworthy features about boys’ books is the absent center—a center we might call peacefulness, or the maternal principle, or home and hearth. The violent action of boys’ books takes place at the periphery, where the male musk oxen stand guard, backs turned to the cows and calves who are nevertheless the point of the exercise. In Moby-Dick, the quintessential boys’ book, there’s a telling interlude (in Chapter 87) during which the Pequod penetrates to the center of a large gathering of whales, where the mothers are nursing the babies, and where—despite the frenzied slaughter going on around the borders—the whales are mating. Ishmael comments,

And thus, though surrounded by circle upon circle of consternations and affrights, did these inscrutable creatures at the centre freely and fearlessly indulge in all peaceful concernments; yea, serenely revelled in dalliance and…

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