Alice McDermott's Fiction

Voice, Memory, Trauma, and Lies

by Gail Shanley Corso (Volume editor)
©2018 Monographs XXIV, 190 Pages


In Alice McDermott’s Fiction, contributors explore the emotional pain, the uncertainty about identity, and the faulty relationships within families and communities of characters in the writer’s work. In the Foreword, Monica McGoldrick identifies how complications such characters as in McDermott’s fiction experience often relate to "reverberations of the pain and shame of their Irish ancestors that have been silenced over time." The aftermath of lies, self-deception, and trauma are analyzed, and McDermott’s themes, stylistics, and aesthetics are identified: familial relationships in second- and third-generation Irish-American families; trauma that characters experience when living their lives of repressed feelings or conflicted self-identity—or forgotten cultural identity; silence in families and inauthentic relationships between mothers and daughters; propensity for characters to lie to show care and concern for another and to cling to mythical images of a patriarchal hero; allusions to Catholic ritual and belief; conflict of female characters as they grapple with choice and autonomy; wit and farce as social commentary; craft with spontaneity and recursion in her narrative structures; emblematic use of peak moments as significant to memory; use of stealth narrators; use of allusions wryly to provide for an astute reader the intertextuality of her stories; repetitive metaphoric use of language to indirectly reveal truth; and, finally, focus on art or telling the story to compensate for sorrow from loss and death. As McDermott’s characters grapple with their trauma and loss, the redemptive quality of the arts is identified.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Foreword (Monica McGoldrick)
  • Works Cited
  • Acknowledgments
  • Alice McDermott: A Chronology of the Writer’s Life (Gail Shanley Corso)
  • 1. Introduction: “What is not said than what is said?”: Begorrah! (Gail Shanley Corso)
  • Works Cited
  • Segment One: Multidisciplinary Interpretations of Pretense and Lies in Alice McDermott’s Fiction
  • 2. “Not what it seemed”: Pretense and Identity in A Bigamist’s Daughter (Colleen McDonough)
  • Notes
  • Works Cited
  • 3. Understanding the Rhetoric of the Lie in Alice McDermott’s Charming Billy: The Context of the Redemption Cycle and Irish-American Culture (Martin LoMonaco)
  • Lying and Rhetoric
  • The Cultural Context
  • Identification
  • Agency and Worldview
  • Guilt and Redemption
  • Works Cited
  • 4. The Narrator as Angelus Novus: Collective Memory, Truth, and Lies in Charming Billy (Suzanne Mayer)
  • Works Cited
  • Segment Two: Dialogue and Silence as Forms of Communication in Alice McDermott’s Fiction
  • 5. Go Ask Alice: Dialogue With Alice McDermott on May 10, 2011, at Johns Hopkins University Homewood Campus, Baltimore, Maryland (Gail Shanley Corso)
  • Note
  • Works Cited
  • 6. Narration as Experience of Simultaneity in Alice McDermott’s Someone (Edward Hagan)
  • Notes
  • Works Cited
  • 7. The Cry of the Banshee: The Keen of Pain and Loss in “I Am Awake” (Gail Shanley Corso)
  • Introduction
  • Allusions to Irish-American Identity
  • Psychological Interpretations of Adolescents and Grieving
  • Psychoanalytic Interpretation of Family Secrets
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Works Cited
  • 8. Lois as Separate and Silent: Liberation From and Ambivalence to the Categorical Imperative in Alice McDermott’s “Robert of the Desert” (Gail Shanley Corso / Colleen McDonough)
  • Note
  • Works Cited
  • Segment Three: Memory, Loss, and Trauma in Alice McDermott’s Fiction
  • 9. Celibate Bride, Shrewish Sage, and Fey Cousins: Intergenerational Trauma Among the Women of McDermott’s Novels, Charming Billy and Child of My Heart (Suzanne Mayer)
  • Works Cited
  • 10. Love and Grief: Recollection, Reiteration, and Replication in Alice McDermott’s That Night (Claudia Marie Kovach)
  • Works Cited
  • Appendix
  • Appendix A: “I Am Awake” (Alice McDermott)
  • Note
  • Appendix B: “Robert of the Desert” (Alice McDermott)
  • Note
  • Contributors
  • Index

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This fascinating book explores the brilliant and deeply moving work of Alice McDermott, one of the most stirring Irish-American women writers of our time. McDermott is concerned mostly with Irish families that are several generations beyond the Irish diaspora. Her work is always understated, intriguingly ambiguous, and deeply moving, often through the silences—through what characters do not say to themselves or each other.

McDermott’s stories often seem to be located in the past, in the 1940s to 1960s, a very different time for Irish Catholics in New York. This timing creates a kind of emotional distance, what Claudia Marie Kovach refers to as a “romantic distance,” which creates a space between the reader and the narrator and a distance for both from the story, while each narrative is always implying connections between past, present, and future. The book explores the many layers of McDermott’s work. For example, in the evocative story “I Am Awake,” included in this volume and also analyzed in one chapter, McDermott tells of the shy Laura, who has a moment of teenage love with Jake Barry. He dies shortly after an infection, and is mourned greatly by his classmates and by Laura. Laura’s mother Adele is unable to connect enough with her daughter to even know the extent of her pain, and never reveals to her daughter that she as a teenager had had a romantic attachment to Jake’s father, Kevin Barry, who in the end has become a loud alcoholic. McDermott writes:

Kevin Barry had been a large, loud party guy, all of his own Irish heritage reduced to merely an excuse for being drunk and crazy. Adele had a few encounters with him in her own wild days. She remembered that he’d left her breathless, a little frightened. Overwhelmed. He was funny, but also manic, kind of desperate, as if he knew … that a sorrow like no other waited for him in his future. There were nights … when he bruised her skin with his grip. (see App. A)

These few words are practically all we know of the man, except that his choice of a song for his son’s funeral is in Irish and which he doesn’t understand, but ← ix | x → which they later learn means, “When love enters the heart, it will never be driven from it” (see App. A).

Hidden underneath all this, for any Irish person aware of that history, is the resonance of the other Kevin Barry, the 18-year-old Irish-Republican hero, whose famous murder by the British is celebrated in one of the most famous and haunting of all Irish songs, “Kevin Barry,” recounting most of all Barry’s bravery in refusing to inform on his comrades. That Kevin Barry kept silent. This one became a loud mouth. That Kevin Barry was one of the most universally sung heroes in all of Irish history. This one became one of the unsung alcoholics of his Irish neighborhood. Might it not have turned out differently? Might that Kevin Barry’s life have turned out very differently if his life had not been cut short like Jake’s, or if he had in another context, cut off from his history and his dedication to freeing “old Ireland”? And might this Kevin Barry with his strength, his desperation, his “craziness,” and mania become a hero in another context, in a yet-to-be-lived Irish heritage of the future? McDermott challenges us over and over to see the ripples from one life to another and from the hidden to that which we can see. Every story shows the reverberations of the characters, the narrator, and the readers through Irish cultural history to the small acts of their everyday lives, full of doubt or fear or humor or bravado. Gail Shanley Corso in her analysis reminds us that McDermott’s subtle allusions to Irish culture and beliefs in this story are more indirect as characters seem more spatially removed and emotionally detached from knowing their Irish-American ethnic identity.

This always seems to be going on with McDermott’s characters. She always is weaving memories, dreams, reflections, with underlying trauma subtly influencing conversations years or even generations after the fact. She harkens back from today’s experiences to our parents and their parents’ experiences, always implying threads of connection between the Church then and the Church now, the social context then and the social context now. Hidden away is the historical context of the Irish, of which most characters seem minimally aware. And always, the reverberations of the pain and shame of their Irish ancestors that have been silenced over time, seem perceptible if you listen carefully in even the most seemingly boring encounter.

Along with the weaving of memories and dreams are the mis-rememberings and the lies. Well, the Irish have always had a special relationship to lies and to truth, perhaps different from any other cultural group. Suzanne Mayer’s chapter on Charming Billy explores “The Narrator as Angelus Novus: Collective Memory, Truth, and Lies.” She begins her chapter with the legend of lying Stingy Jack of the Jack o’lantern on which Halloween is based. She wonders about the stereotype that the Irish as a nation are given ← x | xi → to lying. Of course, this question can never be separated from the hundreds of years of Irish history of oppression, during which one could be killed for telling the truth, and telling the truth often meant betraying your neighbor. So telling the truth is not a simple proposition. For the Irish, lying is also bound up with story-telling, joking, “craick,” the gift of gab—in other words with survival strategies, ways to navigate relationships through tall tales, humor and innuendo that made the pain of life more bearable through the sharing. Friedrich Nietsche’s foundational thesis long ago made clear that truths are illusions, mere metaphors and images which once uttered become an established reality, “of which one has forgotten that they are illusions” (qtd. In Adams and Searles 694). Mayer points out how truth telling is made more difficult to fathom by the complexities of collective memory—what we each think we remember, what gets modified by each other’s memory of the same event, and the difficulty of knowing what “really” happened. Mayer discusses the idea that lies paradoxically may reveal a deeper truth. She sees truth as an emotional and inward experience related to context, rather than objective fact.

Family systems theory makes a point of emphasizing that telling your family the truth without respect for the emotional context you are embedded in may be an inappropriate affront. Telling the truth from a systems perspective is always an emotional process involving your commitment to the other. There is a gentleness, humility and quality of listening to the other’s readiness to manage the truth that is always at stake. This is something the Irish may at times misjudge for many reasons, but it is also something they seem exquisitely sensitive to, in my opinion.

There is a moment in Hugh Leonard’s play Da, when the son, who was adopted, frustrated with his father’s lying about where his biological mother was, has an imaginary conversation in which he challenges the father to tell the truth about his mother. For a moment it seems the father will finally tell the truth. He admits that he lied before, but then, even as he starts to tell, he can’t bring himself to do it. The son berates him for lying. Sheepishly, the father, who feared hurting his son by telling the truth—or perhaps hurting himself by admitting it—says, “No, that wasn’t a lie, it was a makey-up!”

This response is something other cultures that value “truth telling” differently can never understand about the Irish—the lure of coloring history telling with softening descriptions that are in the end perhaps more “makey-ups” than “lies” as others think of lying. It has to do with how we human beings deal with our romantic inclinations and storytelling that heals, but also, in certain ways, disguises or re-colors our history when the full traumatic impact of it is hard to deal with. ← xi | xii →

As Martin LoMonaco suggests in his analysis of Charming Billy, it may be hard for non-Irish readers to understand why, for example, Billy Lynch’s friend Dennis lies to him about his Irish girlfriend, Eva, who married someone in her Irish town and kept the money that Billy had sent her for her return to New York. Dennis tells Billy that Eva has died, and for years Billy writes letters to her family thinking they are grieving for her. Why does Dennis lie to his friend and not tell him the truth that his girlfriend has abandoned him rather than that she has died? Is it because her betrayal would be more painful even than her death?

Years later, when Billy goes to Ireland, he finds out the truth, that Eva had used his money to buy a garage with her husband, but always she felt guilty for what she had done to Billy, and had meant to right the wrong she had done him. In my mind, even more painful than that life of shame she never got over is what we learn about her sisters. They cut her off for the next 20 years for her treatment of Billy. This is such an Irish pattern. Pain begets pain without the participants really understanding what they are doing. Undoubtedly many other hurts were embedded in the sisters’ cutoff, just as many previous painful traumas of the Lynch family were undoubtedly embedded in Billy’s romantic attachment to Eva, and in his inability to proceed with his life rather than becoming locked into a dead marriage and suicidal alcoholism after his friend Dennis told him Eva had died.

McDermott’s characters convey time and again a sense of past trauma that has closed them down. But often it seems that the history is not clearly known or remembered, so that what we see in them is the silence, the shut down, the inhibition to risk. Underlying McDermott’s characters seems to be that indistinct pain for traumatic history which they don’t even know.

The Irish American, Tom Hayden, grew up not really even knowing he was Irish, and did not understand how it had impacted him until in middle age he finally went to Ireland. He has described the power of hidden trauma that seems always behind McDermott’s characters. Hayden says he had always been “haunted by the Irish trait Sean O’Faolain called ‘a shrewd knowledge of the world and a strange reluctance to cope with it’” (Irish on the Inside 63). This trait seems to characterize many of McDermott’s characters, who often seem to have a special wisdom and at the same time a kind of naiveté about who they are, and about their context. Their silences almost seem to ring with the hidden history and the secrets they fail to share even when their lives might depend on them.

Tom Hayden’s first act of protest in the Civil Rights Movement involved taking groceries to families that had been evicted from their land in Tennessee. A reporter later interviewed his father, asking how he accounted ← xii | xiii → for his son’s radicalism. The father said he had absolutely no idea—that it certainly didn’t come from how he was raised. Only years later, when Hayden first went to Ireland, did he make the connection between his first act of protest and his ancestors having been evicted from their land and dying of starvation; through learning of his own family’s history, did he then begin to understand who he was.

Hayden has since written about what it costs when we are not able to know or come to terms with our cultural history. He talks about the oft-noted pattern of Irish repression of painful memories as a psychological barrier that allowed them to protect their children from bitter and painful experiences that they did not want passed on. Unfortunately that barrier also left the next generations unable to make sense of their parents’ trauma, as he explains:

Hayden dedicated his book Irish Hunger to all those who have had their deepest stories denied, in the hope that the world may receive respect for who they truly are. These ideas seem to resonate deeply with the intergenerational patterns we so often see in McDermott’s stories. It is almost as if the characters without being able to articulate it, are seeking to understand who they are and what has happened to them.

The Irish author Nuala O’Faolain has her narrator speak of the same hidden history of trauma in her novel My Dream of You:

Later in the narrative, she has us consider the intergenerational effects of trauma:

Underlying McDermott’s novels and stories, the hidden traumas of Irish history always seem to be lurking. The characters become both victims and perpetrators. McDermott catches the nuances of kindness and almost selfless generosity of some family members, who stop at nothing for others (Dennis, his father Danny, and many others) and the shutdown that inhibits others, who become angry, oblivious or seemingly cold hearted. Yet always, the repression, secrecy, and lies seem to hide a traumatic history behind what we are told.

The authors of this book provide multilayered analyses of a number of McDermott’s works, an interview with the author and inclusion of two of her short stories as well. The intent is to explore voice, memory, trauma and lies. The authors approach McDermott’s work from many different perspectives: communications, psychology, media arts, English and world literature, linguistics, and pastoral counseling. They do an extraordinary job of explicating McDermott’s works from many diverse angles.

Many thanks to the authors of this multidisciplinary interpretation and tribute to Alice McDermott for their insights and analyses of this profound writer.

Works Cited


XXIV, 190
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2018 (April)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2018. XXIV, 190 pp.

Biographical notes

Gail Shanley Corso (Volume editor)

Gail Shanley Corso, Professor of English at Neumann University, completed her undergraduate degree in English at Brooklyn College and her master’s degree in English from SUNY Albany. She received her doctorate in English with a specialty in rhetoric and writing from Bowling Green State University in 1991. A member of the editorial advisory board of Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy, Corso has collaborated with teams of manuscript reviewers since 2001. Her first collection of poems, Tendered to Us in Love, was published in 2015. Her articles have been published in Studies in Arts and Humanities, Teaching American Literature: A Journal of Theory and Practice, The International Journal of Literary Humanities, The International Journal of Learning, and ERIC.


Title: Alice McDermott's Fiction
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216 pages