Returning to Long Island and 'That Night' 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.
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Returning to Long Island and 'That Night'

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Returning to Long Island and 'That Night'


Returning to Long Island and 'That Night'

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It's time now for our summer reading series, You Must Read This - authors talking about books they love.

Today, Alice Powers tells us about a book that she has reread every summer for the past 20 years.

ALICE LECCESE 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."

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 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 Wakes and Weddings(ph)", "Charming Billy" and "After This."

M: the casual, guiltless way mothers smoked, the teenage girls who snapped their gum and sprayed on Ambush cologne, the pristine white wall-to-wall carpeting that, according to McDermott, was like walking on fur laid over clouds.

LECCESE POWERS: 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 reread "That Night" and visit my own childhood.

SIEGEL: Alice Powers is the author most recently of "Spain in Mind," a literary travel guide that include essays, poetry and fiction. And you'll find an excerpt from "That Night" along with more of NPR's You Must Read This recommendations at our Web site. Just go to

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