The deceptively ordinary elements of "That Night" are put together with such undercover art and such vigorously individual results that the book seems to be an act of germination more than an act of fiction. Alice McDermott nurtures her suburban pair of adolescent lovers as Mrs. Shelley, no doubt, nurtured a dozen ordinary pounds of Percy Bysshe.
"That Night" begins with an act of violence that is shocking, pathetic and funny at the same time; and goes on to relate what led up to it and what came afterward. It is voiced with musical economy by a narrator who was a preteen at the time, and who tells it years later.
One quiet summer evening in a Long Island suburb, with grass being watered and children playing on the sidewalks, three cars full of teen-age boys blast up onto a lawn. One of the boys advances to the door, followed by his companions, armed with chains. After talking a moment to the woman who answers the door, he pulls her roughly over the doorway and throws her to the ground. He steps back, looks up to the windows and howls desperately: "Sherry!"
The men on the block, who have rallied around, go for the intruders with baseball bats and snow shovels. It is a melee of awkward flailing; before long, the boys flee in their cars and the police arrive. Here is McDermott on the aftermath:
"There was the disappearing siren of the young cop's car, the approaching sirens of his reinforcements, little Jake screaming in his mother's arms. There were the other children, who had been blasted into the hedges and the grass by the escaping cars (and who were lying tragically now, unharmed but unwilling to stand until their own part in the adventure, their own brush with death, had been fully recognized). . . . It seemed our whole neighborhood had raised its voice in one varied, inharmonious wail."
It is awful, of course, but the hint of wryness in McDermott's tone is telling us something else. Nobody has been seriously hurt; the boys are no better at swinging their chains than the men their snow shovels. Those children, "lying tragically now" are overplaying their role as war victims. So are the fathers, as defenders of civilization. So are the intruders, as young warriors helping Rick, their lovesick friend, rescue his princess from her tower.
Sheryl, the princess, is not in her tower. She is away in Ohio. Pregnant, she has been sent to stay with relatives. Her mother--the woman on the lawn--won't give Rick her address. Rick will be briefly arrested and wisely counseled. He will back away from his moment of glory, rejoin the world of adult expectations with a rueful "I guess I overreacted," get a suspended sentence and grow up to live a normal, unglorious life.
Sheryl, after her moment of grand passion, will have her baby out of town, and grow up to live a normal unglorious life. The torn-up lawn will be reseeded; families will move out and others move in. The children in the hedges will grow up, catch their own longings and passions that the suburbs are incapable of coping with, and leave.
Surely, we already know everything that McDermott is offering. In the first place, we have been told repeatedly that the American suburb is an aquarium more than an ecosystem; and that the creatures swimming in close proximity there have principally this present proximity in common, and derive very little past or future from each other. From the time they are ladled in, to the time they are ladled out, they are held together by something as fragile as a glass globe.
Second, we know that the young of the species, once they begin growing up, find little place there--economically, intellectually or emotionally.
Finally, we know that adolescents are in a state, anyway, where they make absolute and unsustainable claims on life in a seemingly hit-or-miss fashion that is agonizing for them and those close to them. The claims take the form of mortal and momentary love affairs, styles of dress, music and eating, and passions and loathings of all kinds.
These things should be as familiar as a television serial. But McDermott makes them seem new. We have never seen them before; and as with any new life, our own lives have to shift a little to make room for them.
The author's perceptions of suburban life have a rich detail of the quality of a Cheever or an Updike. Her wryness is only the reverse of tenderness; together, they make a voice that is closer to a lament than a denunciation.
The drama of Sheryl and Rick allows an assemblage of separate lives to think of itself, briefly, as a community; hence the overplaying on the evening of the fight. For a few days afterward, the men, who normally would get home after work and disappear into their houses and TV sets, hang about outside. It doesn't last; the suburbs have no facilities for transforming passions or death or even the passage of time; their sustaining premise is an unbroken gentleness of surface.