Alice McDermott’s eighth novel, The Ninth Hour, begins in early-twentieth-century Brooklyn with a thirty-two-year old man named Jim preparing to take his own life. He has sent his pregnant wife, Annie, out to the shops; he seals the windows and doors of their tenement apartment and turns on the gas. Jim’s mutinous attitude toward time and attendance, and preference for lying in bed, have lost him his job as a BRT trainman. A quick glimpse into his soul shows him glorying in what he takes to be exercises in independence — these largely amount to his flouting of set hours — but at bottom he is wracked with insecurities, and the fortitude most people exercise in soldiering on is not his. Thus he dies, leaving his wife and future child with no means of support.
Enter Sister St. Saviour of the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor, the first of the nuns whose work and inner lives play as much a part in this story as anyone’s. Discretion, savvy, and determination are St. Saviour’s salient virtues. She has seen it all, “breezed into the homes of strangers and seen the bottles in the bin, the poor contents of a cupboard, the bruise in a hidden place, seen as well, once, a pale thumb-sized infant in a basin filled with blood and, saying nothing at all, had bowed her head and nodded in just such a way.” St. Saviour takes over, comforting the young widow and moving fast in an attempt to arrange a Catholic burial, which Church law forbids for a suicide. The old nun has cultivated a network of influence, lending her de facto power in circumventing the laws and strictures “that complicated the lives of women: Catholic women in particular and poor women in general. Her own little Tammany, Sister Miriam called it.”)
St. Saviour enlists other nuns from the order to help manage Annie’s situation, and eventually the young mother-to-be is given a job in the convent’s laundry, where, in due time, she brings her baby to tend while she works. This is Sally, a child who grows up in the midst of doting religious women. Among them are Sister Jeanne, tiny, adored by children, and possessed of such understanding and compassion that she is willing to make the most extreme sacrifice for another; Sister Lucy, forceful problem solver, impatient of incompetence, indolence, and self-pity, a woman who lives “with a small, tight knot of fury at the center of her chest”; and Sister Illuminata, indefatigable head of the laundry, “a wizard with a hot iron and starch, with scrub brush and bleach.” The nuns work tirelessly on behalf of the poor, more effective than priests in practical matters.
Early on, McDermott slips the narration to Sally’s future children, and we move ahead to their time to find that the nuns are still involved, coming in to manage the household during what turn out to be their mother’s bouts of melancholy, periods during which Sally simply takes to her bed. A narrative “we” then looks back to the family’s much-told stories, of the break between Michael, their father’s father, and his own father, Patrick, who opposed Michael’s choice of a wife; of how Patrick lived a life blighted by having paid a substitute to take his place in the Union Army during the Civil War; and of how, crippled and badly scarred in battle, the man appeared at the door one day to take up residence in an upstairs room — a living reproach, tended by Patrick’s sister, still a child, who devoted her life to his care: “A widowed spinster, our father called her. A married nun.” McDermott, a master of resonance, gives these stories later valence, attaching them with the utmost subtlety to coming events.
At one point Sally, now eighteen, still cosseted by the nuns, eager for admiration, and heroine of her own fantasies, flatters herself that she has a religious vocation and travels by rail to a novitiate in Chicago. On the train her romantic view of service and sacrifice are punctured in a series of hellish encounters that are both horrible and — to the reader, at least — bleakly funny. Departing from her quiet descriptive style with its undercurrent of revelation, McDermott paints a grotesque phantasmagoria of lubricity, gluttony, cruelty, deviousness, fraud, and filth. The trip — which might have been conceived by Flannery O’Connor — exposes Sally not only to what the secular world has to offer but to her real self, a person unable to overcome her disgust with human nature and commit herself to others. If her later melancholy — what we call clinical depression — has a root beyond inheritance, it is here and in the shadow of her father’s suicide and in a later, truly shocking event, all creating in her a feeling that life has no meaning but the inevitability of death.
Problematical and complex versions of sacrifice and their ramifications run through this book. The nuns, of course, are self-sacrifice incarnate, devoting themselves to helping others and, not least, exercising the self-abnegation and restraint that communal living demands. Sister Lucy, for one, expresses this wordlessly, her frequently raised eyebrow saying, “You women constitute my purgatory . . . I will endure it, but not for your sake.” The novel’s title itself points to sacrifice, the “ninth hour” being one of the canonical hours, 3 pm (notionally the ninth hour after dawn), the hour that Christ died on the Cross, sacrificing himself for the sins of the world. Such fascination with sacrifice and its endless demands — willingly embraced, reluctantly endured, or guiltily refused — belongs to the Catholic Church of an earlier age and to a vanished sensibility and milieu, all evoked to perfection by McDermott. This is an exquisitely deep novel and a triumph.
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