Alice McDermott: “Someone”

01/27/2012 § 1 Comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, January 30, 2012.

It’s the simplest of premises: we are, all of us, looking for someone to love us. For seventeen-year-old Marie, a girl as shy and naive about the subject as her bottle-bottom glasses are thick, she has the misfortune of falling for the first person to show her even the slightest bit of interest, Walter Hartnett. The words that set her heart aflutter, incidentally, which cause her to stand in front of the mirror, smoothing her face and saying her would-be-future-husband’s name? “What’s wrong with your eye?” Yes, Mr. Hartnett’s not exactly a catch, and although the grown-up Marie knows this (“When her daughters began dating she told them, ‘Here’s a good rule: If he looks over your head while you’re talking, get rid of him'”), she also still can’t stop talking about this first love, the too-ordinary, too-cruel, necessary-to-write-his-entire-name-for-emphasis-and-secret-longing Walter Hartnett.

That’s basically the entire story right there, with McDermott erring on the side of caution with a plethora of details and explanations, suspecting, perhaps, that a great many readers will not know what it’s like to be a swooning young girl in love — for me, at least, my boyhood crushes/romances were quite different. However, while the narrative repetition fits with the main character’s obsession, the story itself isn’t all that interesting, especially in the objective third person, which keeps the emotion out of the equation. It’s also difficult to get a sense of Marie’s feelings, given her insecurities and inexperience. Her first sexual encounter comes after an odd first date (Walter keeps looking over her head, which we’ve already been warned about), when Walter, after taking her back to his place, suckles on her breast: “She felt the momentary terror of not knowing what he was going to do as he moved his mouth toward her and then felt it increase a hundredfold when she understood. He closed his mouth over her nipple. He pulled and tugged.” Does Walter have some sort of weird fetish, or is Marie just totally at a loss? There’s evidence for both: later, she describes “her poor pale breast” as “soggy and tender, the pink nipple distended,” as if Walter’s uninterested in pleasure for either of them, and yet as the days pass, she writes that “it was all she could do not to cup her breast herself, offer it to him.” I suppose, given her religious upbringing and absent father (he died three years ago), it’s more the former: “A thrilling kind of shame that made guilt and confusion feel like pleasure, like joy.” Still, they never have another intimate moment over these next two months, until one day Walter takes her out to lunch to announce that he’s getting married to Rita Sweeney:

It wasn’t just that Rita’s family had money, he explained while he ate and the food he had ordered for her sat untouched on her plate. Although that made it better than the two of them, he and Marie–with their widowed mothers ending up alone in their top-floor avaries if they got married. It was simply that Rita was better-looking. No flaws that he could see. Not, he said, like you and me.
“Blind you,” he said. “Gimpy me.”
He said as the lunch wore on, “Don’t kid yourself that everybody’s equal in this country. It’s the best-looking people who have the best chances.”

Okay, this is an absurd scene. It’s hard to believe that anybody could be both this cruel and nonchalant at the same time; odd, too, that in a small town, Walter could secretly romance and plan to marry the judge’s daughter without Marie finding out. It’s unclear, too, why Rita would even want to marry Walter (or why the father would approve of such a shit-heel’s proposal). Most importantly, all of this is irrelevant to the story, so the fact that McDermott forces us to think about it — the motives, the scene, etc. — makes me wonder what exactly McDermott is after, especially with that moralizing line of his about “the best-looking people.” On the other hand, it’s effectively surprising: we know that this relationship won’t last, but don’t see this particular ending coming. From the writer’s perspective, however, it seems as if McDermott could have found a more realistic way of unmooring both Marie and the reader, something that might allow us to connect with Marie’s sorrow on a more intimate level and thereby snap back into yet another, entirely different story.

Yes, post-break-up, we get a metaphorical flood, as tears make “the buildings and the street lamps and the cars with their bright windshields, even the dark figures of other people, grow buoyant.” (That’s a nice reversal, too, for her mood is anything but buoyant.) She dreams of unzipping her own spine and cursing God “for how he had shaped her in that first darkness: unlovely and unloved.” And that’s not the biggest departure: her older brother Gabe, who has quit the priesthood, now shows up to comfort her. (So much for not having a father figure.) Walking is his method of soul-searching, and after Marie’s gotten a physical distraction — a blister — he tells her a story about when he and Walter were kids, one that illustrates either that Gabe, who is now good, was once cruel, or that Walter, who is now cruel, was once kind. Either way, the point is that people are changeable, nothing is permanent, and, as the last line promises, as she wonders who will love her now, “‘Someone,’ he said. “‘Someone will.'”

This, as you probably guessed from the title, is the point McDermott’s trying to make, and it’s a good one, solidly presented. But it makes much of what precedes it unnecessary: it’s not as if seeing poor, delusional Marie get her hopes up adds anything to Walter’s cruelty; he’s mean enough to any girl. Nor is it as if we’ve really seen Walter’s cruelty, given the one isolated, confusing, and unreliable situation we are given (pre-absurdity). Why not just start with Marie in tears? Most questionable of all, however, is a moment at the end where — even though McDermott’s now knows where she’s taking the story — the author has Gabe encounter a former parishioner of his. McDermott means to point out that Gabe is a three-dimensional character, but to the reader, it shows a lack of focus: do we really care more for Gabe now? Do we need to? The world is big and inexplicable: the short-story aims to zoom in on something small and potentially explicable.

Who will love this story? Someone, I’m sure. But not me.

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