Alice Leccese Powers
When people ask me, "What was it like to grow up on Long Island?" I give them a copy of Alice McDermott's novel That Night. "Read this." I say. There, in less than 200 pages, McDermott brings back infinite summer evenings spent running across lush lawns and concrete driveways. McDermott wrote, "We, the children, roamed through our neighborhood like confident landlords."
In the early 1960s — before childcare and playdates and nannies — mothers ruled the daytime while fathers worked at jobs in New York City. They raised us in the suburbs — the children of fortune.
Long Island was a place of neatly clipped grass, chain link fences and rows of nearly identical homes. Under all that reassuring sameness — what McDermott calls "a sense of order and security and smug predictability" — was a vague notion of impending disaster. That Night exposes a darker side of the postwar dream.
Told from the perspective of a 10-year-old neighbor — an observant outsider much like my child-self — That Night is the story of high school lovers, Rick and Sheryl, their unplanned pregnancy and a serio-comic rescue attempt gone awry. The lovers are hoods, disaffected suburban teenagers who gather in deserted parking lots to drink rum-and-coke, smoke and make love in the back of their Chevys.
In lesser hands, this would be trite, the stuff of romance paperbacks. But McDermott is a master. This was only her second novel, a predecessor to the acclaimed books Of Weddings and Wakes, Charming Billy and After This. With pitch-perfect voice, she claims Long Island her territory, just as surely as Faulkner's was Mississippi. No detail escapes her: the casual, guiltless way mothers smoked, the teenage girls who snapped their gum and sprayed on Ambush cologne, the never-used living room furniture with plastic slipcovers topped by crushed-velvet pillows, the pristine white wall-to-wall carpeting that, according to McDermott, was like "walking on fur laid over clouds."
On one of those endless Long Island summer evenings, McDermott stages an epic battle between hotrod boys and the local fathers. The teenagers and the parents in my neighborhood never came to blows, but the ingredients were all there: the skinny, ponytailed girls with their Ban-Lon sleeveless sweaters and skintight Wrangler jeans, the boyfriends who gunned their noisy convertibles, and the fathers who waged perpetual warfare over teenage curfews.
And then there were the mothers. I knew women like McDermott's Mrs. Evers who were old from childbearing by the time they were 30. And Mrs. Sayles who wore tennis whites even when she wasn't playing tennis. And Mrs. Carpenter who kept her upstairs rooms like an immaculate shrine while her family lived in their knotty pine basement. McDermott wrote, "her lovely rooms would wear and grow old despite her."
In That Night McDermott lovingly bares the suburban soul — no, she bares the American soul — hidden behind metal Venetian blinds and crisply manicured hedges. In the end we glimpse her characters - the lovers and the child narrator — all grown and transformed by one summer night. That Night.
Every time I read one of Alice McDermott's novels, I return to Long Island. And every summer, for the last two decades, I re-read That Night and visit my own childhood.
You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva.