is an online magazine of the literary arts.

20 April 2006 | Vol. 6, No. 1

A Review of Richard McCann's Mother of Sorrows

Mother of Sorrows
Richard McCann
Pantheon, 2005
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 i