20 April 2006 | Vol. 6, No. 1
A Review of Richard McCann's Mother of Sorrows
Mother of Sorrows
Hardcover, ISBN: 0679411763
Check Amazon.com; check Powell's Books
The same unnamed character narrates each of the linked stories in Richard McCann's Mother of Sorrows from the indifferent safety of a distant future. United in voice and organized to move roughly chronologically from boyhood to deathbed illness in middle age, the stories read more like chapters in an episodic novel or memoir. But this linked nature is one of the collection's saving strengths.
Although the narrator is the only character present throughout the entire collection, other characters shadow one another across the bounds of each story. Individually, any one narrative precisely details the intricate shortcomings of family bonds; cumulatively, these stories evoke one doomed man's inner strife as he compulsively looks to other times or idealistic models for family behavior and uses these models to find so much lacking in the relationships of his own life. Like so many good books, Mother of Sorrows is about what one man has and does not have, and therefore, it is about the tragedy of desire that bridges the space between.
But before I offer any more praise, let me state that there are large ways in which these stories risk failure. Not the least of which is the narrator's typical paralysis: although there is much he desires (and as he ages, much he says he has previously done), he most commonly and comfortably presents himself as a character of inaction. The other characters—brother, mother, father, lovers—glam up and go downtown, get drunk, get high, fuck, and yell and fight. The characters the narrator loves most and most dearly describes are those that take action—often sinful actions that the narrator most wishes he could take, such as his brother's unhindered sex, or as when he buys a diary in "The Diarist" because he is enamored with his mother's detailed personal accounts of young, glamorous life in New York City. (But, symptomatically, he has nothing with which to fill the diary.)
Occasionally within the collection the narrator interrupts his own reticent behavior with sudden outbursts, and because these outbursts serve as dramatic climax (or set the conflict of the story inevitably rushing toward climax), McCann shapes the typical inaction of the narrator into a well-manipulated baseline instead of the wet blanket it could so easily be.
As the dissonance between the father's wish for a masculine son and the narrator's mama's-boy disposition reaches a peak in "The Diarist," for example, the narrator overreacts and shoots up an old car with a BB rifle. (Although, significantly, he initially does not react at all.) This destructive scene moves us because it exists in contrast to the narrator's typical inaction; and the same inactive norm infuses the climax that follows with a literal darkness and terrible silence. (It should be noted that the specter of death is ever-present in these stories, whether that of a character's death—"The Diarist," the narrator tells us, takes place "the summer before my father died"—or the death of a way of life.)
Because we readers know that the narrator has it within himself to shoot up an old car with a BB rifle after a fight, and has it within himself to move across the country at the suggestion of indecent sex, we do feel suspense when he does not act—when we want him to have sex for the first time but he does not, for example, or when we want him to come out to his mother but he does not. A narrator of want, specifically backward-looking desire—which he inherits (literally in the form of photographs) from his mother—a narrator who so rarely acts on desire could quickly bore a reader, but the cumulative character history of the stories engenders reader patience and compassion that might not exist within any one story individually.
Sorrow stamps the cover of the book and, indeed, the stories are typically weighted by sorrow—death, unalterable lifelong disappointment, and untenable, inerasable lies. There is no extended sequence of pleasure anywhere in the book, except, perhaps, the drag dress-up between the young narrator and his friend Denny in "My Mother's Clothes." (But this too is pleasure withheld as the narrator interrupts with a future's distant and annoyingly apathetic series of questions, most notable for their stiffly obstinate refusal of rigorous emotional self-awareness.)
But McCann's precise prose, which is loyally physical in detail, handles the subject matter in an honest and quiet way, rescuing it from drudgingly obsessive regret and from effusive melodrama, and placing it within a movingly lyrical evocation of, well, sorrow. McCann's prose is not alive such that is infused with direct emotion or risk; but it is precise, detailed, and sensory.
To read Mother of Sorrows is especially joyful because it slowly reshapes its potential shortcomings into strengths over its cumulative course. By the time we meet Helen, the narrator's friend and surrogate mother-wife in the final story, "The Universe, Revealed," we place his and Helen's ritual of retelling anecdotes about departed loved ones within the larger mournful yearning of the entire collection. What begins as a boy's youthful desire to live in another time in a seemingly glamorous life blossoms into a trait of mournfulness, a reflective desire to reach back, unravel tragedy, and extend the joys previously overlooked.
Mother of Sorrows is a book about communing with one's personal dead and about the shadow the inexhaustible desire to do over casts on present circumstances, even as this desire's own foolishness makes itself known. This is a sorrow too deep for one story. And this sorrow shakes us, as good books do, because the narrator is no longer unnamed. He is I.
Richard McCann's work has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, Tin House, and Ploughshares, and in many anthologies, including Best American Essays 2000. He is the author of Ghost Letters, a book of poems. He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and from the Fulbright and Rockefeller Foundations. He lives in Washington, D.C., where he co-directs the graduate program in creative writing at American University. "My Brother in the Basement," from Mother of Sorrows, can be read online at Blackbird.
About the author:
Brian Leary is the founding editor of 42opus. He also maintains a photoblog at his homepage, brianleary.com.
For further reading:
See the complete list of work by Brian Leary at 42opus. Browse the contents of 42opus Vol. 6, No. 1, where "A Review of Richard McCann's Mother of Sorrows" ran on April 20, 2006. List other work with these same labels: nonfiction, review, review of fiction.