Untangling the Time Lines

I recently saw an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in which the crew of the Enterprise gets caught in a time loop. At a crucial point in time - in this case, the aftermath of an explosion that destroys the Enterprise -the ship and crew are thrown a few days backward in time, only to relive in ignorance the same tragic sequence of events that lead up to their demise.

I don't know if Alice McDermott is a Star Trek: TNG fan, but At Weddings and Wakes, the exquisite new novel by the 36-year-old author of That Night, plays similar games with time in its story of a Long Island Irish-Catholic family. A character is killed off only to reappear at her wedding toward the end of the novel; a recovering alcoholic is sent back to relive his nights in the gutter; a deceased husband returns to take the last climb up the Brooklyn staircase before he dies. It's a novel that eschews conventional, linear forms for a wide-open time line to jump around on. (Talk about playing God!)

In the hands of a lesser novelist, this kind of temporal hopscotching would cause confusion, infuriation, and even boredom. But McDermott writes meticulous, detailed prose that, while threatening to sink under the weight of its own minutiae at times, often builds to luminous, wrenching epiphanies.

At Weddings and Wakes is the story of Lucy Towne Daily and her three sisters: Agnes, an uptight businesswoman; May, a former nun and Miss Lonelyhearts who gets her man - the local postal carrier - only to pass away four days after their wedding; and Veronica, an active alcoholic who rarely leaves the cramped Long Island townhouse in which the three sisters and their stepmother, Momma, who is also their deceased mother's sister, reside. They all live lives of quiet desperation, trapped in the repressions of home and tragedies of family history. Security in this family is considered dysfunctional.

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Sojourners Magazine December 1992
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