In his first collection of fiction, Justin Cronin proves himself a
deft chronicler of everyday American life. The eight connected stories
in Mary and O’Neil find their nexus in the character of
O’Neil Burke, who, in the beginning of the book, is a smart,
amiable young man attending a pristine New England college.
After both his parents die while he’s away at school, the
touchstones of O’Neil’s life — his wedding day, the
illness of his sister Kay, a surreal visit to his childhood
home — become tinged with puzzlement and grief. But his
parents’ death is also an unforeseen source of strength: later
in the novel, watching his sister reading a book in bed with her sons,
O’Neil reflects: “A piercing loneliness touched him, and
he realized, with a start, that it wasn’t his parents he was
thinking of, or even Kay. He was thinking of his wife and daughters.
He longed to hold them in his arms.” Like a well-crafted poem,
Cronin juxtaposes the narrative of O’Neil’s life with the
white space of his parents’ death.
It is Mary who ultimately provides solace to O’Neil’s
grief and wanderlust. He meets her as a young woman while backpacking
through Italy. Standing at a map behind Pitti Palace, she is amused by
his broken Italian (“Dove siamo: Where are we?”), he by
her charisma and tenacity. But it is their mutual sense of loss (she
has given up a baby) that brings them together.
As Mary and O’Neil create a life together, what becomes apparent
is their lingering sense of innocence. This is a couple whose
accumulated loss has shadowed them into adulthood. Unlike the
sharp-edged innocence of Holden Caulfield, however, their innocence
emerges organically: through the measured and lyrical prose. In their
early days as a couple, for instance, Cronin writes: “Their love
was eclectic and sensual — O’Neil, for instance, sometimes
placed his nose against Mary’s cheek simply to smell her skin,
or bathed in the water she had just used — and their lovemaking
surprised them with its ease. So many years of nervousness; why had no
one told them that sex was meant to be funny, and that they could say
the things they wanted to and ask for what they liked?”
In another scene, O’Neil waits in a hospital, exhausted after
the birth of his first child. Though it is nearing midnight, he dials
the telephone number of his deceased parents on a whim. A woman
answers, and believing O’Neil to be someone she knows, tells him
to come home.
O’Neil, however, is only one of the characters whose story is
told in Mary and O’Neil. In these self-contained but linked
stories, we learn of Mary before she meets her husband, dodging
scurrilous suitors in the small town of Twig, Minnesota. We meet Kay,
O’Neil’s sister, who moves from a bookish adolescent to a
wife with a distant husband, and later — a difficult struggle with
disease. The strongest story of the collection, “Last of the
Leaves,” is actually about O’Neil’s parents, Arthur
and Miriam, on the last day of their lives.
“Last of the Leaves” moves effortlessly between the
perspectives of Arthur and Miriam as they prepare to visit
O’Neil on his college campus. Considering his quiet community,
Arthur muses about “a town where the theft of garden tools from
an unlocked shed makes the papers; where the same man who cuts your
hair on Tuesday will run on Wednesday to extinguish the flames of your
burning house; where the shopkeeper who catches your child pocketing a
package of baseball cards will close up the store and drive the boy
home (O’Neil, ten years old, claimed to have done it on a
dare)…” Of course, Arthur’s idyll — however
beautifully rendered — is still an idyll, and soon his thoughts
drift to his conflicted feelings for a friend, Dora Auclaire. This is
what is most moving about Cronin’s work: his ability to imbue
the ordinary with complexity and surprising emotion.
E.M. Forster once wrote about the “opening out” of a
story, and in Cronin’s structure (short stories as sections of a
larger work: a collected novel?), he achieves this rather elegantly.
Continued reading of this passage reveals a chorus of Arthur’s
thoughts mingled with the cars inching along in the blizzard, all of
it falling over the reader like winter flakes: “A single car
passes them in the oncoming lane, then another, then a third, all
traveling with a conscientious slowness that neither suggests nor
contains panic; it is not a night, yet, that makes people
afraid.” Even the story titles seem to evoke this graceful
style — “Last of the Leaves,” “Lightness,”
“A Gathering of Shades” — and provide subtle hints at
the stories to follow.
Like the exquisite novels of Sue Miller, Cronin describes Mary and
O’Neil — as well as their siblings, parents, and
children — with lyrical grace and aplomb. Cronin captures the
rhythmic patterns of waking, working, and loving in everyday life.