For a good part of the twentieth century, the ethnicities of fiction writers served as literary labels. Grace Paley in her early career, for instance, was greeted as an addendum to Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud, her fellow descendants of Eastern European Jews, and the blurbs on the back of her first book are from Philip Roth and Herbert Gold and Harvey Swados, as if no Protestant could even be asked. Her innovations in narrative—the free-ranging sentences, the primacy of voice over plot—were seen as less crucial to early critics than what was then considered a very particular content: Jews in mid-century America.
Today American writers of all races and ethnicities may well complain of similar pigeonholing, but at least models have changed; not every writer is expected to realistically evoke setting as background and cause. Absolution, Alice McDermott’s remarkable new novel, is her own answer to questions about her chosen range. Her work has always had a distinct social and geographic territory—Irish-Americans in Brooklyn and Queens and on Long Island, often in the post–World War II era. Margaret Atwood once described McDermott’s novels in these pages as exploring, “subtly but ruthlessly, the same complex world—that of second- and third-generation emigrant Irish, living angry, ruined, melancholy, occasionally hopeful lives.”*
In Absolution, her ninth novel, McDermott for the first time moves her people elsewhere, some 8,800 miles from the familiar. It’s an enlarging shift, allowing moral questions (ever present in her work) to lean against America’s troubled political history. I was reminded of Alice Munro’s move, midcareer, beyond her own Ontario to the historical material that yielded expansive stories like “The Albanian Virgin” and “Carried Away” and allowed her to make wider, more surprising connections over wildly distant plotlines.
“There were so many cocktail parties in those days,” we’re told on the first page of Absolution. The “days” are 1963, and twenty-three-year-old Patricia Kelly, recently married, is in Saigon, where her husband, an engineer, is working with the CIA as a civilian adviser in the volatile months before sporadic violence becomes war.
McDermott’s main characters in Absolution are wives—women who’ve landed in pre-war Vietnam with their husbands—so they are without power in this dangerous moral sphere. Or are they? A first cocktail party serves to introduce us to Charlene, a glamorous “dynamo,” older and more worldly, who takes the story where the rule-abiding Patricia could not otherwise go. Charlene, a corporate wife, has been leading a “cabal” of American women to visit children’s hospitals with baskets of treats and toys and stuffed animals. Her own daughter, Rainey, who’s “about seven or eight,” is proud to have a Barbie doll, new on the market, and when an adept Vietnamese maid sews an outfit for the doll, a white silk áo dài, Charlene decides they will fund the hospital visits by selling these outfits for people to send home to Barbie-loving girls in the US. She credits the innocent Patricia with this idea, because she knows everyone is sick of her being “smarter-than-they-are me.”
Barbie! McDermott could hardly have known that just at this moment Greta Gerwig’s film would be turning her around for us to view from all angles, fond and satiric and theoretical and surreal. Barbie also made a brief appearance in McDermott’s second novel, the splendid That Night (1987): a doll with a big wardrobe has her uses in a fiction that loves detail.
In Absolution, McDermott is decoding an era for us through its surface textures. Here’s the now much older Patricia remembering Charlene’s daughter:
The little girl spoke softly, with the manners—she said, “Yes, ma’am”—that were taken for granted in children, in those days. Seen but not heard. Nearly whispering, she touched the doll’s little shoes—open-toed high heels—and the pretty floral dress she wore, explaining that the doll arrived wearing only a bathing suit, but that any number of outfits could be purchased: cocktail dresses, uniforms—nurse or stewardess—even a wedding gown that cost, and here she grew breathless with the astonishment of it, five dollars.
From the small purse on her arm she withdrew a tiny booklet, illustrated with all the outfits the doll might wear.
The áo dài is a modern riff on a traditional Vietnamese garment, reworked in the 1920s and 1930s to be more formfitting, a long wrapped tunic with a nipped waist and flowing pants. Charlene eventually adds a nón lá, the conical hat made of woven leaves or straw. Barbie can wear anything, as we know, and within the novel the choice is no more ironic than anything else Charlene does.
Charlene, stylish, catty, brilliant, has a hungry desire to do good in a world where “there’s so much wretchedness.” In a long scene with a very skeptical military wife whose help is needed, Charlene tells her that, though she knows she does “very little” good, when she and her friends visit a leper colony and see “the grotesque transformation of the human form,” they at least do not “turn away”—because “to close your eyes at the sight of this suffering is, to my mind…a kind of evil.”
The Patricia who has gotten herself embedded in this project is the sort of decent, intelligent, morally aware Irish Catholic girl who might have appeared in any of McDermott’s earlier novels. After a life being Patty, Patsy, and Pat, she is given the WASPier name Tricia by the heedlessly bossy Charlene. Her husband, Peter, comes to Vietnam pleased to serve under a Catholic US president, helping the Catholic Ngo Dinh Diem’s regime. His CIA recruiter told him that Catholics are especially sought after because they understand “the threat of godless communism” and jokingly called it the “Catholic Intelligence Agency.”
Much of the book is in Tricia’s voice, in the form of a letter requested after Charlene’s death by Rainey, once the owner of the Barbie doll. Sixty years have passed. Tricia is now in her eighties and can comment sharply on the lives of women then—how no one questioned husbands who did not “allow” wives to do things, how constant and expected the husbandly “belittling” of wives was, even how women imitated male opinions as a way of bullying other women. All of this commentary is wonderfully accurate and just pointed enough. The older Tricia can mock the customs of her youth (“I’m sure it all seems absurd to you”) while never reducing them to the unimaginable.
McDermott has always liked to have parts of a story move around in time. Her 1997 novel Charming Billy begins with the death of the doomed alcoholic romantic hero Billy in his fifties, and then moves us back to different stages in his life, with its legends expounded and then debunked. Someone (2013) begins with seven-year-old Marie watching the people around her and then gives us a much older Marie looking back.
In another view of the politics of this time, Absolution has Tricia remembering her premarital days, when, shortly after her graduation from college, she almost went to Birmingham, Alabama, to join the Freedom Riders in civil rights protests. (White mobs are beating the busloads of arriving riders, though Tricia thinks this won’t happen to someone like her.) “I guess you could say I was progressive in the era’s Catholic schoolgirl kind of way,” she says. She makes it as far as Charlottesville, Virginia, with her ardent friend, Stella, and there is dissuaded from traveling further by Stella’s aunt, who feels strongly that Tricia cannot take serious risks because she is an only child and her widowed father’s sole family.
While this section reminds us of the deep turmoil of the era, and also shows Tricia once more as the moderate friend—the forceful Stella is compared to Charlene—it has a couple of assumptions buried in it. One is Tricia’s belief that she has been definitively shaped by her social origins, that her values have been determined by her upbringing. This is Tricia’s theory and the novel’s assumption as well. The other is that nothing is more important than family, that its claims block all argument. Neither of these is an unusual or weird idea, but they do mark limits in where the fiction wants to go.
Tricia, who taught kindergarten at a parish school in Harlem for a year before her marriage, wants nothing more than to have a child. Her closeness with Charlene really begins when Charlene shows up to stay with her through the long night of a miscarriage. Charlene, in an act of surprising tenderness and gravity, holds the ejected embryo and baptizes “the tiny thing” with drops of Vichy water and the Lord’s Prayer. (Tricia will have “three more miscarriages and then a hysterectomy at thirty-five,” we’re told.) The sorrows of this time intensify Tricia’s responses to the ailing children Charlene takes her to see.
On a visit to a crowded, noisy children’s hospital in Saigon, she comes upon a young girl with burns who is crying in an unceasing wail, staring at the gift basket of toys “with no change in the fear and the outrage.” In “an impulse from my days of teaching” (different rules then), she takes the child in her arms. The child does not cease her loud wailing, but she does nestle, and Tricia feels the terrible agony and the “insistent life” in her. Later she wonders if the burns were from an early use of napalm. “But I can’t say for sure that’s what it was. Who was to blame for that anguish.”
Even from the perspective of decades later, Tricia is unwilling to press too directly on the politics of the situation. Much of the children’s suffering—from malaria, dengue fever, polio—is, as Charlene says, “the madness of creation,” meaning that diseases will always attack human bodies. There’s a largeness in this view, and an admirable resistance to quick fix verities, but it does run the risk of blurring the issue of blame, letting nameable factors off too readily. The title, Absolution, is, of course, floating around this question.
Charlene next takes Tricia to a leper colony, run by nuns, accompanied by an army doctor and two other visitors. It is a long ride out of town, through fields of green rice paddies. In the afternoon, the colony is visited by an oddly dirty American doctor in his fifties. He tells such dispiriting stories—including one about a helpless hydrocephalic infant he claims to have been “tempted” to smother—that Tricia thinks of him as Satan. He rides back with them and rattles even Charlene. Then the car’s motor suddenly gives out, stranding them on a dangerous road at night, in a heavy rainstorm. The army doctor takes off on a bike back to the base for help, and there’s a terrible wait in the dark. We know Tricia survives to lead a long life, but it’s her last trip with Charlene. She’s hit her limit.
Charlene has not. She is next seen dreaming up high prices to reimburse pregnant Vietnamese women for giving up their infants for adoption—which she argues is not “selling babies” but underlining their worth. Charlene says any mother would give up her child to save it. Tricia, who is horrified, remembers turning back from the risky trip to Birmingham because of her absolute tie to her father. Her friend Stella felt then that she had to go on because of her own family’s history as slaveholders—“the original sin is ours…. We don’t have the option to stay safe. Not anymore. A sin like that can’t be absolved…safely.” But Tricia, then and later, is lodged on the side of those whose goodness has to be safer and small-scale.
This is a continuing argument in the novel—a novel that seems at first to suggest itself as a parable of America’s destructive miscalculations in Vietnam (what is Satan doing in there?) but ultimately edges toward the messiness of realism. Does knowing the intricacy of moral complications mean no heroism is possible?
This issue is addressed, toward the book’s end, in a letter back to Tricia from Rainey. Rainey offers news of the later fates of two characters. One is Dominic, a young army officer who once made his own voluntary visits to Vietnamese hospitals, sometimes with Charlene. He is seen as still genuinely good, in his fifties and happily married, with a son with Down syndrome who turns out to be adopted. The difficulties in keeping this son safe add a last drama, but Dominic’s claims to our admiration remain.
The other news is of Charlene. As a teenager, Rainey laughed at her mom’s reliance on Librium and Manhattans and had her own opinion of the Vietnam War—“It was the oil companies…that had sent all those hapless kids to their deaths.” Shrill and young, Rainey’s is the antiwar voice not heard directly before; the era’s protests have been absent from the book. But when Rainey has her own baby, she gains a more measured view of the home her mother made:
our family’s gorgeous little universe built on compromise, of course; ill-gotten gains, I suppose; bargains with the Devil, no doubt.
But also luck, grace.
Whatever it took to get us, to keep us, safely home.
Back in the United States, Charlene continues her charitable fund-raising “for the motherless darlings who through no fault of their own had been born in countries that simply could not measure up,” and in the early Eighties “had started bringing gifts to AIDS patients at two hospitals in the city…. Her lepers, my father had called them.” Dated figure though she is, lacking in glory to her kids, she is not useless.
The novel offers a later assessment of Charlene, whose efforts Rainey has described as “inconsequential good.” Tricia points out that neither she herself nor Rainey has shown the same “outsized generosity” or “furious ambition” as Charlene and have “hoped only…to stay safe: to close as tightly as we could the circle of our affection.” The book does not settle the question of which is better—ambitious efforts or modest family safety—but underlines differences of character.
McDermott has thought long and hard about how a careful and sensible person contends with an impassioned and driven one—that’s the fulcrum of many of her plots. The unstoppable Charlene made me think of Charming Billy, one of McDermott’s best books. Like Charlene, Billy attracts devotion, even as he goes too far. Both novels feature arguments about how to mourn such people. One of Billy’s friends opposes all the talk of alcoholism—“give him some credit for feeling, for having a hand in his own fate. Don’t say it is a disease that…wiped out everything he was.” And Charlene’s sister is angry to hear Charlene’s children mocking her—“Didn’t you love her?… You wouldn’t know it, to hear you.” Charlene and Billy have both been demanding, impossible, and “exhausting.” In Absolution, Tricia is finally very glad to escape from Charlene’s Saigon, but there would be no story without Charlene in it.
The writing throughout Absolution is masterly. Even the least significant character is deftly drawn as a fellow human. Clues are planted with subtle art. (The toddler with a birthmark we see in a photo with a happy-looking American family, for instance, is then seen at an earlier phase as an infant in Saigon.)
This is a period novel, so social texture has the special job of conveying the unsaid intention of custom. Here is young Tricia dressing for the cocktail party:
the high-waisted cotton underpants (I hope you’re laughing), the formidable cotton bra, the panty girdle with the shining diamond of brighter elastic at its center. The click of the garters. Stockings slipped over the hand and held up to the light, reinforced toe and heel and top.
She is both guarded and sexualized by her underwear.
When the Vietnam War began to appear in mainstream American films (I am thinking of Platoon, out in 1986, and Full Metal Jacket and Good Morning, Vietnam, both released in 1987), one criticism among the more leftist moviegoers I knew was that the war was being treated as a crisis in the lives of young American men. Was no one thinking about the Vietnamese? In this book, American women, not men, are the focus—and the Vietnamese in the story are servants or indigent patients. Tricia has no social contact with Vietnamese who are moneyed or who wield power; President Diem and his staff are (believably) not guests at any of the parties.
But there is a last, closer view, in the penultimate chapter, of a group of five Saigon children who are trying to reclaim an infant sister that Charlene has paid to place in an American home. In a beautifully suspenseful and superbly crafted scene (with no common language among the principal characters), McDermott draws our attention to the Vietnamese reality, as the children noisily embody the family feeling so crucial in this book:
I asked the tall girl, “She is your sister?” And the girl nodded. I looked at the little boy on her lap. “Sister?” I asked him, but he only stared back. I turned to the two little girls squeezed together in the chair on my right. “Your sister?” I asked, and saw them both glance at their tall companion. Slowly, they, too, nodded, clearly with no real sense of what they were agreeing to. Their tears had made long trails along their dirty cheeks.
Vietnam is the war that never leaves us—the one we lost. Any military action since is blighted by mention of resemblance to Vietnam. McDermott has always been good on the complexities of innocence, and defeat has often haunted her Irish-American characters (in love, in ambition, in addiction); here it has its own national echo. So the era and place are a natural choice, it seems, for her shift into a fiction in which the violence of world politics (so painfully part of life today) bears down on even those who long for the sweetness of impossible, unexceptional lives.