Thursday, November 29, 2007

Michael Patrick MacDonald's "All Souls": Book Review

MacDonald characterizes himself as cursed with an "Irish whisper." That is, unable to keep the secrets he's entrusted with under wraps, blaring out what he should have kept hidden. This memoir of the 1970s through the 1990s, when Whitey Bulger's thugs replaced the anti-busing protests for media attention in South Boston, moves efficiently, with modest attention to Michael Patrick's own coming-of-age as contrasted with a fearsome family scenario of ten siblings, four of whom meet violent ends and three of whom die tragically. The one who survives might as well have died earlier; she survives a coma only to emerge a psychological and physical wreck. While this story often blurs the schooling, or lack of, that the author gained as he grew up in the midst of the anti-busing boycotts, and while you gain a stronger sense of the other members of his family rather than himself, this may be redressed in the new sequel, "Easter Rising." You get a less distinctive depiction of himself compared to his larger-than-life Ma and assorted brothers. Yet, the author appears here to deliberately focus upon his family and the violent milieu that boasts of its solidarity yet which poisons its very cohesion by such corruption on a moral level and a sociological scale. MacDonald redeems himself and his neighborhood as he grows up not only in body but in spirit, managing a buy-back gun program and learning to trust (a few perhaps) police.

The same department who sought to imprison his brother, at thirteen, as Boston's youngest suspect: such maturity for the narrator emerges gradually and realistically. His story of how he survived Old Colony, absent of maudlin sentimentality or contrived cutesy anecdotes, reflects what in his acknowledgements appended he calls "every painful and personally redemptive sentence." (265) MacDonald manages to tell a story that could have been akin to the film "The Departed" or the HBO (even though it's in Providence) "Brotherhood," yet avoids ethnic cliche and predictably pat endings. The drama of abiding by the neighborhood code that forbids snitching but vowing to break that same omerta by seeking the culprits behind two of his brothers' deaths and the imprisonment of a third adds natural tension to this narrative. Yet, MacDonald sidesteps special pleading.

Many of the memories he shares deserve repeating. For this review, three quick examples. First: the author accounts for the absence of a regular man in Ma's life as she cares for eight kids. "A man would only be abusive, tear at Ma's self-worth, and limit her mobility in life. Welfare could do all that 'and' pay for the groceries." (33). Her third (named) partner and second husband, Bob King, gets hit over the head by Ma with the wine bottle that made him drunk. When he comes to, she accuses him or stealing the "Christmas money" and he's sent off down Jamaica Ave. for the last time. Staggering down the street, to staunch his bleeding head, he holds what Michael Patrick fetched on his mother's orders: a Kotex pad.

Ma herself gets shot randomly, through the living room window, by a teen high on Whitey's cocaine, just before the episode of "Dallas" comes on that she and all of America had been waiting for: "Who Shot J.R.?" Whether evoking the terror of his brother Davey's schizophrenia at Mass Mental, the fear of rats and roaches that infest the projects, the rage of the busing protests, the desperate schemes of his Ma to stay ahead of the authorities, or the conniving that infects both cops and criminals with the same lack of morality, MacDonald holds a calm eye for the telling detail and a cool pen to record what transpired. I look forward to his sequel, "Easter Rising." He keeps to the unadorned, if often witty, accounts of "street justice" that complicate his series of vivid incidents, recalled conversations, and local lore that add up to a poignant, yet honest, depiction of what it was to grow up in what was Southie, before gentrification, integration, and disintegration.

[Posted to Amazon US today-- 178 before me lined up to rate this book, the vast majority at 5 out of 5 stars. The author put a link at the site to his review of "The Departed." Also, here (thanks to Carrie who's found a way out of her own private Southie as well!) Ed Hagan in an Irish Studies perspective compares MacDonald's ghetto mentality with the West Belfast memoirs of Gerry Adams:
The list of the eleven children says it all for a certain culture--born May 1956 (died 1979), April 1957, April 1958 (twins), November 1959 (died 1984), December 1961 (coma three months 1981)-- the father was frequently absent from the home which may explain the year lapse between births here-- February 1963, March 1964, (died three weeks), March 1966 (the author). Two more boys by man #4 in September 1975, December 1976. The author set a city record for his birth weight of nearly thirteen pounds.]

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