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A brilliant novel of wit and despair


The Ninth Hour

By Alice McDermott

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

247 pages, $26

“And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, my God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”  (Matthew 27:46)

Alice McDermott reaches deep into the well of human experience once again in her superlative  “The Ninth Hour” -- a novel that, unlike most of its predecessors, is enlivened throughout by wit.

Never mind that it begins with a suicide and that when feisty old Sister St. Saviour strives to get the deceased placed quietly into hallowed ground, she is thwarted by a newspaper headline, SUICIDE ENDANGERS OTHERS.

“The New York Times,” she announces drily, “has a big mouth.”

It is the opening years of the 20th Century in Brooklyn -- and the Roman Catholic Church has yet to lift the part of Canon Law barring a congregant who commits suicide from interment in a Catholic cemetery.  Plus, there are countless other strictures in place, “Church rules and city rules and … the rules of ‘polite society’ that complicated the lives of women: Catholic women in particular and poor women in general.”

This is pure McDermott country – especially given the fact that it is Irish Catholics who inhabit “The Ninth Hour,” starting with Jim, the young Irish immigrant who has just taken his own life by sealing all the windows and turning on the gas, making a tinderbox of his tenement building which has subsequently burst into flame.

It is the act of a complex soul -- humanity’s inner struggles being a specialty of McDermott who also places most of her mainly Irish Roman Catholic characters in her native Brooklyn and environs. In “The Ninth Hour,” it is chiefly Brooklyn and the convent of the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor as well as the tenement apartment of Jim’s widow, Annie, and her soon-to-be-born daughter, Sally.

But first Jim, the 32-year-old, recently-fired motorman for the BRT whose disdain for authority and desire to do what he pleased drives him to suicide: Sister St. Saviour, on her way home from begging for alms when she comes upon the scene, is kind in her assessment: “The day and time itself: late afternoon in early February, was there a moment of the year better suited for despair?”

What follows is a roadmap of the overarching havoc wrought by one person’s selfish choice on a short, dark day – as well as the unexpected and wide-ranging bonds of love set in motion by that choice, bonds that will, for good or ill, echo down through three generations, all the while calling into question the lengths of human devotion.

If this seems labyrinthine, McDermott handles it with such clarity and simplicity that the book’s depth sometimes eludes us – but only till the next plot twist (of which there are several). That is the power of a McDermott novel, the power to lull, the power to awaken, as a story unfolds before us, in this case a melancholy story laced with unexpected humor.

Mrs. Tierney is a case in point, Annie’s good friend and the mother of several young children. She speaks of the Little Sisters as nuns “doing good where it was needed, imposing good where they found it lacking,” while clucking over extra appeals for funds during Sunday services from “some plucky little sister bound for pagan lands.”

She also has the best line in the book, telling her husband, “But love’s a tonic, Michael, not a cure.”

But it is the title of this brilliant book that is at the core of the human capacity for doubt and despair found within it. No matter how one interprets the apostle Matthew on Christ’s last hours as man, we all have our moments of doubt, even despair.

Annie has a lion’s share of both, after Jim’s death, and is only able to function through the largesse of the Little Nursing Sisters who see her through the next few days and find a way to support her by giving her a position in the convent laundry -- where Sister Illuminata irons from dawn to dusk, flicking “her wet fingers over the clothes as if to douse a sinner” while gently offering words of wisdom.

After little Sally is born, Annie simply takes her to work with her, a child brought up by a bevy of nuns “puffed into their black cloaks like seagulls on a pier,” among them the petite young Sister Jeanne and the jowly, aging Sister Lucy.

In time, there are two salient developments: Sally comes to believe that her love of the Sisters’ life means she is meant to become one – and her mother, clandestinely moving on, takes up with the town milkman, sharing her bed with him every workday afternoon while the unknowing Sally is stowed safely with the unknowing Little Nursing Sisters.

Mr. Costello, the milkman, already has a wife – but she is infirm, not to mention unpleasant and demanding, and cared for workdays by the Little Nursing Sisters (so that Mr. Costello can make his milk rounds). It is a cosy situation for all until it isn’t – and to say more about the sometimes-startling plot would spoil the treat for readers.

Suffice it to say that McDermott, however small and domestic the circumstances here, is dead on as she goes to the heart of human existence, exploring love and suffering both great and slight as her characters go about their quotidian lives.  She tells their shared tale from several points of view – Sister Jeanne’s, Annie’s, Sally’s and a “we” we understand to be Annie’s grandchildren.

At one point, Annie, pondering Sally’s unbending wish to join the convent, references the saints “who went to their deaths – eyes raised – in their stubbornness to heed the Lord’s call. Jesus Himself playing the part of the lovely-eyed beau, dangerous and strange and so alluring. Jim.”

Yes, Jim. It is this level of insight that elevates “The Ninth Hour” – and it is sections like that devoted to Mr. Tierney’s journey to the funeral of his wealthy, estranged father that have real staying power. This trip, taken with and described here by the Tierneys’ son Patrick, introduces us to ancient Aunt Rose -- and crippled old Red Whelan who had been paid to fight in the place of Mr. Tierney’s father in the Civil War.

No wonder “all joy was thin ice to Sister Lucy” – and that “the white horse-blinder bonnets (the Sisters) wore did more than limit their peripheral vision.”  Human nature does not change and life was hard in the early 1900s, the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor knowing all too well that this was especially so for women.

“Although poverty and men made a bad situation – to be born female (was) worse still,” Sister Lucy tells Sally at the end of a long day. “A woman’s life is a blood sacrifice,” she says. “This was…our inheritance from Eve.”

Two women partake of the forbidden apple here but what strikes most in the end is the thought that McDermott is really telling us about ourselves, and how we may very well do the same.

Karen Brady is a former News columnist and regular News book reviewer

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