January 30, 2012


By Alice McDermott
~6600 words

A tale of first love and heartbreak in the Great Depression.

The third-person narrative is told from the point of view of the main character, Marie. She is seventeen at the time of the events narrated, but her recollections are filtered through a perspective that is referred to as "a lifetime later."

The strength of the story lies in several beautifully written passages that convey the fallen quality of the characters:
She wanted to reach behind her neck and unhook the flesh from the bone, open it along the zipper of her spine, step out of her skin, and throw it to the floor. Back, shoulder, stomach, and breast. Trample it. Raise a fist to God for how he had shaped her in that first darkness: unlovely and unloved.
Across a lifetime, she could see that her brother had been no more able to step out of his flesh—face, chest, and limb—than she was. That he bore in those days his own blasted vision of a lost future.
Overall, however, the well-crafted characters fail to command sufficient sympathy from the reader. Marie's boyfriend, Walter Hartnett, is a shallow young man who can't keep his eyes on his date and ends up leaving her for a prettier specimen because, as he tells Marie, "It's the best-looking people who have all the chances." The lack of sympathy one feels for Walter is surely part of the author's design, but the problem is that it makes it hard to understand what Marie sees in him or how, on the basis of one date in which he gnaws at her breast "like an infant nursing," she can fall head over heels in love. The pathos is overdone at times—her "poor pale breast," her tears that "churned like the sea," etc.—but even when it's effective, the reader's sympathy is mitigated by the fact that Marie is clearly better off without Walter, as she seems to recognize later in life:
When her daughters began dating she told them, "Here's a good rule: If he looks over your head while you're talking, get rid of him. Walter Hartnett…" But by then they would throw up their hands: "Jesus, Mom, no more Walter Hartnett stories."
Perhaps the most interesting character is Marie's brother, Gabe, who has left the priesthood for unexplained reasons and, in a poignant final scene, comforts his sister when Walter abandons her. But his powerful role seems to come too little, too late.

The story's structure implies a significant lag between the time of the events narrated (1937) and that of their narration. If the latter is assumed to be roughly contemporaneous with the publication of the story—and the reader is given no reason to assume otherwise—then the main character would be around ninety years old in the present. This mature, "lifetime later" perspective, potentially rich in narrative irony, is insufficiently exploited. Except for mentioning that the daughters were told to avoid men like Walter, the narrator reveals very little about the adult Marie's attitude toward the relationship or why, presumably near the end her life, she continues to think about it. These lacunae give the story the feel of a novel extract that doesn't stand well on its own.

Finally, for a story that takes place seventy-five years ago, the paucity of historical markers or of a general sense of time and place is disappointing. The setting feels as though it could be almost anywhere. A closer attention to the social fabric of the Great Depression would have been interesting, especially given our current economic cycle. The dialect, too, seems a bit off, as in Marie's reply to Walter when he asks about her eye at the beginning of the story:
"Nothing wrong with it," she said. "This one just screws up on me sometimes. When the sun's strong."
If the missing is in the first sentence is intentional, it presumably conveys a substandard dialect that is not, however, consistently conveyed in the story. Additionally, the use of "screws up," while probably perfectly current in the American English of 1937 (in the sense of "to squint"), has such a strong contemporary ring to it that it seems inadvisable as part of the main character's first utterance.

Story arcs as threadbare as "girl gets boy, girl loses boy" must rely on elements such as character, setting, and voice to carry them across the finish line. Despite some finely written passages, "Someone" doesn't quite make it.


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