For several years now it has been my privilege to serve on the selection committee for the Maryland Humanities Council's One Maryland One Book program. It is the committee's job to choose, from a range of nominations, the one book people all across the state of Maryland will read at the same time. This year the committee's task was made infinitely more difficult (and fun) by an embarrassment of riches. From Bill Clegg's “Did You Ever Have a Family” to Marilynne Robinson's National Book Award-winning “Gilead,” it seemed every book nominated more than fit the year's theme: “the great 21st century American novel.”
Of course the problem with having so many great books to choose from is that, inevitably, all but one of them won't make the cut. By definition, there can be only one One Maryland One Book each year. Among the books not selected this year was Alice McDermott's “After This.”
In my humble opinion, Alice McDermott is one of the best writers working in America today. She may be the best. Where other authors depend upon the usual bag of tricks to lend interest to their tales—setting them in far off times or building them up around a dramatic event like a crime or war—McDermott writes about perfectly ordinary people leading perfectly ordinary lives. It takes a writer of immense talent, sympathy, understanding, and skill to make such lives interesting. That McDermott succeeds at this, and succeeds—apparently—effortlessly, will tell you all you need to know about this extraordinary artist.
I would give anything to be able to write like McDermott. Her sentences flow from one to the next as easily as thought itself. Indeed, reading her, you can forget you are reading, the story weaving its way through your mind like something remembered, something that happened long ago to people you feel you knew, people you cared about and as yet hold dear. McDermott accomplishes this slight of hand with language that is deceptively simple. Again and again, arriving at the end of one of her short, perfectly straightforward paragraphs, you will find yourself unexpectedly moved. However, you ask, did that happen? I have spent long hours trying to tease apart the woman's writing, trying to figure out by what alchemy she manages to touch me so ... and I have to tell you, I haven't a clue. Though it is unfair (as it implies a lack of craft, a lack of hard work), my ego requires me to call it a gift. That she has a gift is undeniable, but she has honed that gift to a fine, chisel-sharp edge. Nothing extraneous, nothing missing, and characters that live and breathe and join their lives to your own ... that is Alice McDermott.
When I was a little boy, my mother would sometimes climb to my room after a late night out, wake me and give me a goodnight kiss, her skin and hair still fragrant with the smell of the cold night air and her best perfume. All these years later, the scent of expensive perfume on a wintry night can still conjure up an image of my mother as she was then, young and beautiful and so alive. Similarly, Alice McDermott's prose. She has an eye for the telling detail, the perfect phrase, that will, in an instant, transport you to another time, another place. I strongly recommend her “After This” for your reading pleasure. Indeed, in my capacity as Talbot County's “library guy,” I hereby declare it this year's One Talbot One Book! On Monday, June 27, at 6:00 p.m., in the Easton branch of the Talbot County Free Library, and again on Friday, July 15, at 3:00 p.m., in the St. Michaels branch, I will host a discussion of “After This.” I hope you will join me.