Spare Portraits of Family Life

Richard McCann gives us stories that could never have told themselves

I call “Mother of Sorrows” an arresting collection of stories, a refreshment of tellings.

Not that any of these stories has such an edge; they are too well formed, as composed as poems. However, next to a jagged edge is exactly where the reader of these stories stands with the uncanny sense, perhaps, that this book was previously married to another idea. I do not mean another strategy, as in contemporary literary theory parlance; I mean another idea of wholeness. Moreover, I suspect that in McCann’s mind, the abandoning of that idea of wholeness is characteristic of a fervid, barely-twenty temperament—in this instance the unconscious realization that, as Max de Winter says to his young bride about the title character in Daphne Du Maurier’s classic romance “Rebecca”—or more exactly as Laurence Olivier says to Joan Fontaine in the Hitchcock film drawn from it—“You thought I loved Rebecca? I hated her.”

As this is a work of fiction drawn from biography, I don’t for a minute imagine that Richard McCann hated his mother. Indeed the book is dedicated to her memory, but in the present tense, as if to a living being, whom he calls Mimi, like the Mimi in Murger’s “Scenes de la Vie de Boheme,” brought to the operatic stage by both Puccini and Leoncavallo, essentially a frail soul, fond of bright lights.

Also, speculation about the feelings of the real-life brother represented in this book by the name Davis—and there’s more to that than meets the eye—is a style of literary criticism involving wild analysis that must be avoided at all costs. Nevertheless, the inexorable fact is, so far as the unconscious of any congenitally homosexual son is concerned, that once the narcissistic phase of development (ages one and two) has passed, then, in what I call the Oresteian (rather than the Oedipal) phase of emotional evolution, which might also be styled “Family Romance: Act One,” the mother is inevitably cast as the primary infantile sexual rival. And perhaps the reason that hatred of the actual mother was never thrust into the author’s conscious mind is that the father—as indicated by the forceful, longing and always tender portrait drawn of him here—twigged the infant’s predicament at gut level and took appropriate “surrender” action. rendering the mother, in life, sad indeed.

Every telling is, in the extended sense, a reckoning. “In Mother of Sorrows,” the older brother, and formidable sibling rival Davis, may by “escaping” the untoward and suffocating ministrations of his mother, gotten to Dad’s fishing tackle as the unwittingly vengeful narrator never did, so that whereas the narrator is in the conventional sense mourning a dead father, Davis is actually mourning a mystical husband. But as the saying goes, Davis gets his, giving the narrator not the expected sweet satisfaction of revenge—some wit has defined Irish Alzheimer’s as forgetting everything but the resentments—but the mother of all sorrows indeed. As has been truly said at many a high occasion, to be Irish is to know that in the end the world will break your heart.

In conclusion, for readers of any extraction, “Mother of Sorrows” is a book that will break any heart that comes to it. Of course, if you believe in your heart of hearts that you have had enough heartbreak to last you a lifetime… well, there’s always “Will and Grace” or the Fab Five, waiting there across the room on the plasma screen.

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