Wednesday, November 01, 2006

McDermott's After This is the best book of the year

95. After This, Alice McDermott. Fiction. 10-30, pp. 288

94. The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, Bill Bryson. Humor. 10-27, pp. 320

93. Echo Park, Michael Connelly. Mystery. 10-25, pp. 416

I was hasty. I admit it. A week ago I proclaimed Claire Messud’s fine novel, The Emperor’s Children, the best book of 2006. It’s not. It the next best.

The best book is Alice McDermott’s After This. Trust me on this one.

McDermott, winner of the National Book Award, has never been better than in this tale of an Irish Catholic family from Long Island. The narrative arc of this compact, beautifully written book begins when Mary meets John at the Schrafft’s lunch counter in the mid 1940s and ends decades later as the Keanes approach retirement. In between that first meeting, the Keanes marry, have four children – two boys, two girls – and experience the sweet agony of life.

Under the hands of other novelists this book would have stretched to a thousand pages. But McDermott is especially skillful in what she chooses not to write. With a minimum of words – a bit of misdirection (a telephone call in the night), a glimpse of a passing car and a telephone call to school – and a maximum of skill, McDermott vividly brings to life a scene of great pain and tragedy. We’re expecting it, yet when it happens in this novel we’re caught by surprise. What might have been banal becomes powerful, charged with an emotional resonance few writers can match.

McDermott allows the reader to bring his own intelligence, imagination and experience to these pages, yet in leaving some things unsaid she never leaves the reader wondering exactly what has taken place. The story of these lives unfolds with clarity; it is only that McDermott understands that we understand. She recognizes that the reader is a partner in the process; that writing is completed through reading.

It’s a masterful book that cements McDermott’s well-earned reputation as one of our generations finest novelist.


Bill Bryson’s a funny guy. The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid is a funny book. It’s a good read and I recommend it, but it’s not Bryson’s best.


Michael Connelly. Harry Bosch. Los Angeles. What more do you need to say? Echo Park is as good as it gets.

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