Returning to Long Island and 'That Night'

'That Night' book cover.
Alice Leccese Powers. Credit: Brenna Powers. i i

hide captionAlice Leccese Powers is editor of the just-published Spain in Mind, created the In Mind series of travel anthologies for Vintage Random House. She lives in Washington, D.C., and is still waiting for a coffee bar to open in the main reading room of the Library of Congress.

Brenna Powers
Alice Leccese Powers. Credit: Brenna Powers.

Alice Leccese Powers is editor of the just-published Spain in Mind, created the In Mind series of travel anthologies for Vintage Random House. She lives in Washington, D.C., and is still waiting for a coffee bar to open in the main reading room of the Library of Congress.

Brenna Powers

When people ask me, "What was it like to grow up on Long Island?" I give them a copy of Alice McDermott's novel That Night. "Read this." I say. There, in less than 200 pages, McDermott brings back infinite summer evenings spent running across lush lawns and concrete driveways. McDermott wrote, "We, the children, roamed through our neighborhood like confident landlords."

In the early 1960s — before childcare and playdates and nannies — mothers ruled the daytime while fathers worked at jobs in New York City. They raised us in the suburbs — the children of fortune.

Long Island was a place of neatly clipped grass, chain link fences and rows of nearly identical homes. Under all that reassuring sameness — what McDermott calls "a sense of order and security and smug predictability" — was a vague notion of impending disaster. That Night exposes a darker side of the postwar dream.

Told from the perspective of a 10-year-old neighbor — an observant outsider much like my child-self — That Night is the story of high school lovers, Rick and Sheryl, their unplanned pregnancy and a serio-comic rescue attempt gone awry. The lovers are hoods, disaffected suburban teenagers who gather in deserted parking lots to drink rum-and-coke, smoke and make love in the back of their Chevys.

In lesser hands, this would be trite, the stuff of romance paperbacks. But McDermott is a master. This was only her second novel, a predecessor to the acclaimed books Of Weddings and Wakes, Charming Billy and After This. With pitch-perfect voice, she claims Long Island her territory, just as surely as Faulkner's was Mississippi. No detail escapes her: the casual, guiltless way mothers smoked, the teenage girls who snapped their gum and sprayed on Ambush cologne, the never-used living room furniture with plastic slipcovers topped by crushed-velvet pillows, the pristine white wall-to-wall carpeting that, according to McDermott, was like "walking on fur laid over clouds."

On one of those endless Long Island summer evenings, McDermott stages an epic battle between hotrod boys and the local fathers. The teenagers and the parents in my neighborhood never came to blows, but the ingredients were all there: the skinny, ponytailed girls with their Ban-Lon sleeveless sweaters and skintight Wrangler jeans, the boyfriends who gunned their noisy convertibles, and the fathers who waged perpetual warfare over teenage curfews.

And then there were the mothers. I knew women like McDermott's Mrs. Evers who were old from childbearing by the time they were 30. And Mrs. Sayles who wore tennis whites even when she wasn't playing tennis. And Mrs. Carpenter who kept her upstairs rooms like an immaculate shrine while her family lived in their knotty pine basement. McDermott wrote, "her lovely rooms would wear and grow old despite her."

In That Night McDermott lovingly bares the suburban soul — no, she bares the American soul — hidden behind metal Venetian blinds and crisply manicured hedges. In the end we glimpse her characters – the lovers and the child narrator — all grown and transformed by one summer night. That Night.

Every time I read one of Alice McDermott's novels, I return to Long Island. And every summer, for the last two decades, I re-read That Night and visit my own childhood.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva.

Excerpt: 'That Night'

Book Cover: 'That Night'

That night when he came to claim her, he stood on the short lawn before her house, his knees bent, his fists driven into his thighs, and bellowed her name with such passion that even the friends who surrounded him, who had come to support him, to drag her from the house, to murder her family if they had to, let the chains they carried go limp in their hands. Even the men from our neighborhood, in Bermuda shorts or chinos, white T-shirts and gray suit pants, with baseball bats and snow shovels held before them like rifles, even they paused in their rush to protect her: the good and the bad — the black-jacketed boys and the fathers in their light summer clothes — startled for that one moment before the fighting began by the terrible, piercing sound of his call.

This is serious, my own father remembered thinking at that moment. This is insane.

I remember only that my ten-year-old heart was stopped by the beauty of it all.

Sheryl was her name, but he cried, "Sherry," drawing out the word, keening it, his voice both strong and desperate. There was a history of dark nights in the sound, something lovely, something dangerous.

One of the children had already begun to cry.

It was high summer, the early 1960s. The sky was a bright navy above the pitched roofs and the thick suburban trees. I hesitate to say that only Venus was bright, but there it was. I had noticed it earlier, when the three cars that were now in Sheryl's driveway and up on her lawn had made their first pass through our neighborhood. Add a thin, rising moon if the symbolism troubles you: Venus was there.

Across the street, a sprinkler shot weak sprays of water, white in the growing darkness. Behind the idling motors of the boys' cars you could still hear the collective gurgle of filters in backyard pools. Sheryl's mother had already been pulled from the house, and she crouched on the grass by the front steps saying over and over again, "She's not here. She's gone." The odor of their engines was like a gash across the ordinary summer air.

He called her again, doubled over now, crying, I think. Then he pitched forward, his boot slipping on the grass, so it seemed for a second he'd be frustrated even in this, and once again ran toward the house. Sheryl's mother cowered. The men and the boys met awkwardly on the square lawn.

Until then, I had thought all violence was swift and surefooted, somehow sleek, even elegant. I was surprised to see how poor it really was, how laborious and hulking. I saw one of the men bend under the blow of what seemed a slow-moving chain, and then, just as gracelessly, swing his son's baseball bat into a teenager's ear. I saw the men and the boys leap on one another like obese, short-legged children, sliding and falling, raising chains that seemed to crumble backward onto their shoulders, moving bats and hoes and wide rakes that seemed as unwieldy as trees. There were no clever D'Artagnan mid-air meetings of chain and snow shovel, no eye-to-eye throat grippings, no witty retorts and well-timed dodges, no winners. Only, in the growing darkness, a hundred dumb, unrhythmical movements, only blow after artless blow.

I was standing in the road before our neighbor's house, frozen, as were all the other children scattered across the road and the sidewalk and the curbs as if in some wide-ranging game of statues. I was certain, as were all the others, that my father would die.

Behind us, one of the mothers began to call her husband's name, and then the others, touching their throats or their thighs, one by one began to follow. Their thin voices were plaintive, even angry, as if this clumsy battle were the last disappointment they would bear, or as if, it seems to me now, they had begun to echo, even take up, that lovesick boy's bitter cry.

Excerpt from That Night by Alice McDermott. Copyright © 1987 by Alice McDermott. Used by permission of Alice McDermott.

Jacket design by Rita Marshall from That Night by Alice McDermott. Jacket design © 1987 by Rita Marshall. Jacket illustration by Etienne Delessert. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

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