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Alice McDermott's 'Absolution' transports her signature characters to Vietnam


Humility is the one virtue you wouldn't expect Alice McDermott's characters would need to learn. Her characters are almost always Irish American, Catholic, working-class; they are often dependably meek and self-deprecating. But, in McDermott's new novel, Absolution, humility — both on an individual and a national level — is the virtue that's in catastrophically short supply.

Absolution also teaches me a lesson in critical humility. Surveying McDermott's body of work in a review I wrote a couple of years ago, I pronounced that she steadfastly remains on "native grounds" meaning that her stories pretty much take place in the outer boroughs of New York City — Brooklyn or Queens — or, for those characters who've moved on up, Long Island. Absolution, however, transports McDermott's signature characters to Vietnam, circa 1963. It's futile to predict where a great writer's boundless imagination will take us and, as Absolution affirms, McDermott is a great writer.

Absolution takes the form of memories shared between two American women some 60 years after they left Saigon. Tricia Kelly was a shy newlywed in 1963, a parish kindergarten teacher who went to Vietnam with her husband, Peter — a civilian engineer "on loan" to Navy Intelligence.

As Tricia recalls, back in those days, her "real vocation ... was to be a helpmeet for my husband." That helpmeet role includes, of course, becoming a mother, but, while in Vietnam, Tricia miscarries the first of many pregnancies. Now old and widowed, Tricia is contacted by a woman named Rainey whom she knew as a child in Vietnam. It's Rainey's mother, Charlene, now deceased, around whom the two women's memories orbit.

Charlene was a strawberry blonde dynamo; a corporate wife who conscripted lesser females, like Tricia, into her volunteer army of do-gooders. Reflecting on Charlene's charisma, Tricia says, "I knew her type. I'd met enough girls like her at school. They all had that ability ... to enlist the help of strangers without ever seeming helpless themselves."

Within 24 hours of meeting Charlene at a garden party in Saigon, Tricia finds herself folded into Charlene's "'little group' of women who brought small gifts to the hospitals and various orphanages — candy and crayons, baseballs, baby dolls-- ...."

Coincidental with our ownYear of Barbie, Charlene has the brainstorm to hire a local seamstress to make traditional Vietnamese outfits for imported Barbie dolls and sell them — at a high mark-up — to Americans looking for a unique gift to send home. The proceeds will be plowed back into Charlene's various charities, which include an outlying colony for Vietnamese afflicted by leprosy, the site of a Heart of Darkness-type epiphany for Tricia.

Without once lapsing into heavy-handedness, McDermott suggests parallels between the insistent charitable interventions of Charlene and her crew and the growing American military intervention in Vietnam. Recollecting the mood of "her" Saigon in 1963, Tricia recalls that: "the cocoon in which American dependents dwelled was still polished to a high shine by our sense of ourselves and our great, good nation."

McDermott also deftly recreates another cocoon — the Catholic one — in which Tricia and her husband live. Peter, in particular, believes that the JFK presidency and the shoring up of the regime of Catholic President Ngo Dinh Diem in Vietnam are part of a cosmic plan. It comes as no surprise when Tricia tells us that she eventually learned Peter had been working for the CIA, or "'The Catholic Intelligence Agency,' as it's playfully dubbed, because: "Who better [than Catholics] understood the threat of godless communism?"

But what draws out McDermott's most incisive, compassionate writing is the expat world of "the wives." Tricia, at the very beginning of the novel, describes her rituals of grooming and dressing for the daily round of luncheons, lectures and cocktail parties. Here's but a snippet:

McDermott possesses the rare ability to evoke and enter bygone worlds — pre-Vatican II Catholicism, pre-feminist-movement marriages — without condescending to them. She understands that the powerhouses can dominate the helpmeets. She also understands that playing God is the role of a lifetime — and every human actor should turn it down.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.