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503 Gleams of Life Everlasting in Alice McDermott’s Someone Paul J. Contino Christianity and Literature Vol. 63, No. 4 (Summer 2014) In his December 2012 New York Times essay, Paul Elie briefly mentions “the complex domestic novels of Alice McDermott” and comments about her characters: “I have been to church with these characters, have stood at font and graveside with them. But when I close the books their beliefs remain a mystery. Not in the theological sense—a line going off the grid of cause and effect, a portal to the puzzle of existence. I just don’t know what they believe or how they came to believe it.” Just four months later, Elie interviewed Alice McDermott at a Georgetown Faith and Culture presentation.1 Having just read the page proofs of her as-yet-unpublished novel, Someone, Elie declared it her “best book yet.” I suspect he found in it a fuller, more satisfying representation of what he called in that interview, “realism in the broadest sense,” the power of language to represent reality in both its physical and spiritual dimensions. In my own judgment, Someone, perhaps more than any of her previous novels, suggests the reality of “the hidden ground of Love” (Thomas Merton’s phrase), the transcendent Someone in whom we live and move and have our being. This novel meets Elie’s criteria for the kind of novel he seeks: “You hope to find the writer who can dramatize belief the way it feels in your experience, at once a fact on the ground and a sponsor of the uncanny, an account of our predicament that still and all has the power to persuade. You look for a story or a novel where the writer puts it all together. That would be enough. That would be something. That would be unbelievable.” Elie’s essay inspired many responses, including a list posted by Image magazine of the Top 25 Contemporary Writers of Faith—a list that did not include McDermott, but did so a week later when the list was expanded to fifty (specifically, her novels, At Weddings and Wakes and Charming Billy).2 Part of Elie’s dissatisfaction with the faith dimension in McDermott’s work, at least up to Someone, may be due to McDermott’s resistance to defining Christianity and Literature 504 faith beyond the analogical experience of human love. As she says in her interview with Elie, her understanding of herself as a Catholic/Christian writer is centered in “a sense in all I write that love redeems us. How does it redeem us? Is this true? These are the essential things to discover in art.”3 Seven years ago, I interviewed Alice just after her previous novel, After This, had been published, and she also spoke of her purpose as an artist. I observed the rich irony in her work “the overturning of expectation that can, in itself, be gracious,” and she replied: “That’s the purpose of art. But you find it in the piece as a whole; it’s not in the single scene. It builds sentence after sentence, and then something happens that neither the writer nor reader expected, but that grows out of what came before. That’s so much more fascinating to me, and something I’m more willing to credit a superior being with, than something that happens out of the blue.”4 McDermott’s work, especially her most recent, does “dramatize belief” in the way Elie describes. However, she presents faith as almost integrally connected to doubt, much like the man who pleads with Jesus: “Lord, I believe. Help thou my unbelief.” Helpful here is a remarkable talk that McDermott gave at Fordham in April 2013, adapted and published in Commonweal, and entitled “Redeemed from Death? The Faith of a Catholic Novelist.” Near its conclusion, she states: What makes me a Catholic writer, I think, is not that [my] characters belong to a certain church, or neighborhood or time or place. What makes me a Catholic writer is that the faith I profess contends that out of love— love—for such troubled, flawed, struggling human beings, the Creator, the First Cause, became flesh so...


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