WHAT I EXPECT
On June 17, 2001, three New York City firemen were killed while fighting a Sunday afternoon fire in a hardware store in Astoria, Queens. Apparently, an illegally stored propane tank caused the explosion that toppled a brick wall onto two of the men and dropped the third through the first floor and into the basement, where he signaled for help but could not be reached before his oxygen ran out.
All three men were middle-aged Irish Catholics, longtime members of the fire department. One had been cited for bravery so often that the members of his company called any dangerous and heroic act performed by anyone a “Harry Fordism.” His comrades placed in his coffin a can of beer, a stuffed bear in a Yankees T-shirt, and the New York Times crossword puzzle he had left unfinished when he responded to the alarm. Another was a big, cheerful guy with a remarkable sense of humor and a way with words—a teacher and mentor to young firemen. The third was to leave for Ireland the next day for a four-week vacation with his wife and two small children.
The three men had eight children among them. Each man worked a second job to supplement his fire department salary.
Had the hardware store been open, as it usually was on Sundays, chances are good that the fire would never have started. Investigators later determined that its initial cause was some gasoline spilled under a delivery door by two neighborhood kids playing in the deserted backyard. When the gasoline hit the basement water heater, the fire began. When the fire reached the propane tank, the deadly explosion occurred.
But the owner of the store had impulsively decided to close that Sunday because it was Father’s Day.
I was visiting Long Island at the time and like many other New Yorkers had this account provided to me by the New York Daily News: three days of front-page stories filled with the sad, ironic, heroic details, as well as the familiar photographs—official fire department portraits and grinning photos of the men among their children, and then the orderly rows of firefighters outside the various churches, the flag-draped coffins on the fire trucks, the sobbing eight-year-old clutching his father’s helmet.
And all the while the newspaper was filled with these details and these photographs, before it moved on to other front-page stories about Mayor Giuliani’s awkward love life and the five children murdered by their mother in Texas, I found myself recalling, and longing to reread, Mark Helprin’s very short story “White Gardens.” I wanted to reread the story though I hadn’t looked at it in years, not merely for a chance to ponder a fictional retelling of a similar event, not even for a chance to see real life’s cold ironies put to better use, but simply to hear again the beauty of its language, the rhythm of its sentences. To glimpse again the moment the story describes.
This is how it goes:
It was August. In the middle of his eulogy the priest said, “Now they must leave us, to repose in white gardens,” and then halted in confusion, for he had certainly meant green gardens. But he was not sure. No one in the overcrowded church knew what he meant by white gardens instead of green, but they felt that the mistake was in some way appropriate, and most of them would remember for the rest of their lives the moment afterward, when he had glanced at them in alarm and puzzlement.
The stone church in Brooklyn, on one of the long avenues stretching to the sea, was full of firefighters, the press, uncharacteristically quiet city politicians in tropical suits, and the wives and eighteen children of the six men who, in the blink of an eye, had dropped together through the collapsing roof of a burning building, deep into an all-consuming firestorm.
Everyone noticed that the wives of the firemen who had died looked exceptionally beautiful. The young women—with the golden hair of summer, in dark print dresses—several of whom carried flowers, and the older, more matronly women who were less restrained because they understood better what was to become of them, all had a frightening, elevated quality which seemed to rule the parishioners and silence the politicians.
The priest was tumbling over his own words, perhaps because he was young and too moved to be eloquent according to convention. He looked up after a long silence and said, simply, “repose of rivers…” They strained to understand, but couldn’t, and forgave him immediately. His voice was breaking—not because so many were in the church, for in the raw shadow of the event itself, their numbers were unimpressive. It wasn’t that the Mayor was in the crowd: the Mayor had become just a man, and no one felt the power of his office. It may have been the heat. The city had been under siege for a week. Key West humidity and rains had swept across Brooklyn, never-ending, trying to cover it with the sea. The sun was shining now, through a powerful white haze, and the heat inside the church was phenomenal and frightening, ninety-five degrees—like a boiler room. All the seasons have their mystery, and perhaps the mystery of summer is that it overwhelms with easy life, and makes one feel improperly immortal.
One of the wives glanced out a high window and saw white smoke billowing from a chimney. Even in this kind of weather, she thought, they have to turn on the furnaces to make hot water. The smoke rushed past the masonry as if the chimney were the stack of a ship. She had been to a fireman’s funeral before, and she knew what it was going to be like when the flag-draped coffin was borne from the church and placed on the bed of a shiny new engine. Hundreds of uniformed men would snap to attention, their blue hats aligning suddenly. Then the procession would flow away like a blue river, and she, the widow (for she was now the widow), would stagger into a waiting black car to follow after it.
She was one of the younger wives, one of those who were filled with restrained motion, one of the ones in a dark print dress with flowers. She was looking to the priest for direction, but he was coming apart, and as he did she could not keep out of her mind the million things she was thinking, the things which came to her for no reason, just the way the priest had said “white gardens,” and “repose of rivers.” She thought of the barges moving slowly up the Hudson in a tunnel of silver and white haze, and of the wind-polished bridges standing in the summer sun. She thought of the men in the church. She knew them. They were firefighters; they were rough, and they carried with them in the church more ambition, sadness, power, courage, greed, and anger than she cared to think about on this day. But despite their battalion’s worth of liveliness and strength, they were drawn to the frail priest whose voice broke every now and then in the presence of the wives and the children and the six coffins.
She thought of Brooklyn, of its vastness, and of the things that were happening in Brooklyn, right then. Even as the men were buried, traffic on the streets and parkways would be thick as blood; a hundred million emotions would pass from soul to soul, into the air, into walls in dark hot rooms, into thin groves of trees in the parks. Even as the men were buried in an emerald field dazzling with row upon row of bone-white gravestones, there would be something of resurrection and life all over Brooklyn. But now it was still, and the priest was lost in a moment during which everyone was brought together, and the suited children and lovely wives learned that there are quiet times when the world is touched, and when that which is truly important arises to claim all allegiances.
“It is bitter,” said the priest, finally in control of himself, “bitter that only through windows like these do we see clearly into past and future, that in such scenes we burn through our temporal concerns to see that everything that was, is; and that everything that is, will always be.” She looked at him, bending her head slightly and pursing her lips in an expression of love and sadness, and he continued. “For we shall always have green gardens, and we shall always have white gardens, too.”
Now they knew what he meant, and it shot like electricity through the six wives, the eighteen children, and the blue river of men.
I expect a lot of fiction—of mine and yours and everybody else’s. My need to reread this story in the light of these three men’s deaths, not simply to recall it or to remember its similarities or to describe it to somebody else, but to reread the story itself—a kind of antidote—might be evidence of this.
Helprin’s brief story is not an antidote, of course, to the heartache, the cold and useless ironies of that Sunday afternoon fire in Queens; and yet there is solace in the reading of it, because the language is clear and the images are fine and the story’s few brief platitudes seem both true and appropriate—earned, as we say in writing workshops—by the language and the images and the circumstances of the tale. But more than this, “White Gardens” offers solace because among the many insults contained in the real-life story of that fire in Queens is the indisputable fact that time will move us all away from it, has moved us all away from it—not just the front-page editors at the Daily News, but the readers of newspapers, the eulogizing politicians, the other firefighters, even the wives and the children, the weeping eight-year-old.
Time will move us away from the sad circumstances of the deaths of three good men, dull the outrage as well as the pain, dull the grief, too.
And yet, the moment Helprin describes in “White Gardens” remains vivid and unchanged.
The heat bears down on the mourners, and the young wife sees the white smoke billowing from the chimney, and the firemen, “despite their battalion’s worth of liveliness and strength,” look to the frail priest endlessly, not because the moment itself takes place out of time but because the story exists out of time, unchanging, enduring, there for the reading and the rereading for what is, as far as most of us are concerned, forever.
It’s the solace of art, I suppose. Art in its “Ode on a Grecian Urn” mode. Art that arrests time, tames it, preserves our heartache or our outrage or our joy, our days on earth, from the dulling indignity of time’s healing, obliterating hand.
The solace of art. Scenes that “burn through our temporal concerns.”
This is what I expect of fiction.
Here’s a similar moment in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon:
Two days later, halfway through the service, it seemed as though Ruth was going to be the lone member of the bereaved family there. A female quartet from Linden Baptist Church had already sung “Abide With Me”; the wife of the mortician had read the condolence cards and the minister had launched into his “Naked came ye into this life and naked shall ye depart” sermon, which he had always believed suitable for the death of a young woman; and the winos in the vestibule who came to pay their respects to “Pilate’s girl,” but who dared not enter, had begun to sob, when the door swung open and Pilate burst in, shouting, “Mercy!” as though it were a command. A young man stood up and moved toward her. She flung out her right arm and almost knocked him down. “I want mercy!” she shouted, and began walking toward the coffin, shaking her head from side to side to side as though somebody had asked her a question and her answer was no.
Halfway up the aisle she stopped, lifted a finger, and pointed. Then slowly, although her breathing was fast and shallow, she lowered her hand to her side. It was strange, the languorous, limp hand coming to rest at her side while her breathing was coming so quick and fast. “Mercy,” she said again, but she whispered it now. The mortician scurried toward her and touched her elbow. She moved away from him and went right up to the bier. She tilted her head and looked down. Her earring grazed her shoulder. Out of the total blackness of her clothes it blazed like a star. The mortician tried to approach her again, and moved closer, but when he saw her inky, berry-black lips, her cloudy, rainy eyes, the wonderful brass box hanging from her ear, he stepped back and looked at the floor.
“Mercy?” Now she was asking a question. “Mercy?”
It was not enough. The word needed a bottom, a frame. She straightened up, held her head high, and transformed the plea into a note. In a clear bluebell voice she sang it out—the one word held so long it became a sentence—and before the last syllable had died in the corners of the room, she was answered in sweet soprano: “I hear you.”
Stories we return to not so much for solace as for the way the moment, the sentiment—fleeting tragedy, fleeting triumph—is made fully retrievable, forever, by language, by art: this is what I expect of fiction.
Which is not to say that I expect only funerals in fiction—although I must confess to a certain, possibly genetic, fondness for funerals. Time’s dulling effect can do its obliterating work on pleasure as well as pain, and I expect the fiction I read to recognize joy in all its gradations and complications, in its longevity and brevity, as vividly as it recognizes sorrow. I think of Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein: “Writers,” he says, “are supposed to make you laugh and cry. It’s what mankind is looking for.”
I think of John Cheever:
My name is Johnny Hake. I’m thirty-six years old, stand five feet eleven in my socks, weigh one hundred and forty-two pounds stripped, and am, so to speak, naked at the moment and talking into the dark. I was conceived in the Hotel St. Regis, born in the Presbyterian Hospital, raised on Sutton Place, christened and confirmed in St. Bartholomew’s, and I drilled with the Knickerbocker Greys, played football and baseball in Central Park, learned to chin myself on the framework of East Side apartment-house canopies, and met my wife (Christina Lewis) at one of the big cotillions at the Waldorf. I served four years in the Navy, have four kids now, and live in a banlieue called Shady Hill. We have a nice house with a garden and a place outside for cooking meat, and on summer nights, sitting there with the kids and looking into the front of Christina’s dress as she bends over to salt the steaks, or just gazing at the lights in heaven, I am as thrilled as I am thrilled by more hardy and dangerous pursuits, and I guess this is what is meant by the pain and sweetness of life.
I expect fiction to be about the pain and sweetness of life.
I expect fictional narrators to stand naked, talking into the dark, so that the words they choose are neither self-conscious or self-serving nor—worse yet—author-conscious or author-serving but direct and honest and as true as they can make them.
And then Ricky begins. What will it be this time, I think. I am wild with anticipation. Whatever it will be, I know it is all anyone in the world can give me now—perhaps the most anyone has ever been able to give a man like me. As Ricky begins, I try to think of all the good things the other children have done for me through the years and of their affection, and of my wife’s. But it seems this was all there ever was. I forget my pains and my pills, and the canceled golf game, and the meaningless mail of the morning. I find I can scarcely sit still in my chair for wanting Ricky to get on with it. Has he been brandishing his pistol again? Or dragging the sheriff’s deputy across a field at midnight? And does he have in his wallet perhaps a picture of some other girl with a tight little mouth, and eyes that burn? Will his outrageous story include her? And perhaps explain it, leaving her a blessed mystery? As Ricky begins, I find myself listening not merely with fixed attention but with my whole being … I hear him beginning. I am listening. I am listening gratefully to all he will tell me about himself, about any life that is not my own.
—PETER TAYLOR, “THE GIFT OF THE PRODIGAL”
I expect fiction to be about lives that are not my own.
And yet I expect fiction to be truer than life—yours, mine, everybody else’s—truer than reportage, lecture, memoir, or sermon, so that we, its readers, might listen with our whole being.
I get my fill of vacuity from real-life discourse, thank you. I get my fill of veiled insincerity, selfishness, manipulation, too. It is enough of an effort to excuse one another’s blind egotism in daily life. I don’t expect to have to make excuses for an author’s blind egotism while I’m reading a work of fiction.
In The Counterlife, Philip Roth lets one of his characters, Henry Zuckerman, a successful oral surgeon and the younger brother of famous writer Nathan Zuckerman, read a chapter from Nathan’s latest novel, a chapter we readers have already read, the first chapter of the book we hold. The chapter is told from a fictionalized “Henry Zuckerman’s” point of view, and so we are privy to the “real” Henry’s reaction to his brother’s portrait—a portrait we readers have accepted, just a hundred pages before, as truth.
… it occurred to Henry that Nathan’s deepest satisfaction as a writer must have derived from these perverse distortions of truth, as though he wrote to distort, for that pleasure primarily, and only incidentally to malign. No mind on earth could have been more alien than the mind revealed to him by this book … Exaggeration. Exaggeration, falsification, rampant caricature—everything, thought Henry, about my vocation, to which precision, accuracy, mechanical exactness are absolutely essential, overstated, overdrawn, and vulgarly enlarged … I am a success, Nathan. I don’t live all day vicariously in my head—I live with saliva, blood, bone, teeth, my hands in mouths as raw and real as the meat in the butcher’s window!
I expect all characters in fiction to insist on their own authenticity as vehemently as Henry demands it of Nathan, to stand in judgment of their author’s loyalty to the truth of their lives as passionately as Henry does, to resist caricature and to contradict, if need be, their own creator’s easy assessment—no matter how conveniently that assessment serves story or plot—by shouting words like “saliva, blood, bone, teeth,” and, most essential, “I am.”
I expect this because I want the fiction I read not only to recognize the infinite value and variety and worth inherent in the human soul, the human character, I want it to help me to believe in this infinite variety and value when “real” life seems so determined to prove otherwise. I want to believe that we human beings are, all of us, of equal value and depth and complexity when we stand naked talking into the dark despite how readily, hourly, life presents us with fellow human beings who make us doubt this premise—fellow human beings we suspect we would prefer never to hear or to see in such circumstances (naked, that is, talking into the dark).
I expect fiction never to cave in to these suspicions. I expect fiction to reject one-dimensional characters, easy stereotypes, ready-to-hand clichés, to contain, consistently, characters who, if they don’t shine with the light of their uniquely individual souls, shimmer at least with that soul’s unplumbed or as yet unillustrated possibilities.
In her introduction to her collected stories, Eudora Welty writes:
I have been told, both in approval and in accusation, that I seem to love all my characters. What I do in writing of any character is to try to enter into the mind, heart, and skin of a human being who is not myself. Whether this happens to be a man or a woman, old or young, with skin black or white, the primary challenge lies in making the jump itself. It is the act of a writer’s imagination that I set most high.
I expect authors to love their characters.
But that’s not to say that I expect all characters to be lovable, or even likeable. Consider this marvelous passage:
The road now stretched across open country, and it occurred to me—not by way of protest, not as a symbol, or anything like that, but merely as a novel exercise—that since I had disregarded all laws of humanity, I might as well disregard the rules of traffic. So I crossed to the left side of the highway and checked the feeling, and the feeling was good. It was a pleasant diaphragmal melting, with elements of diffused tactility, all this enhanced by the thought that nothing could be nearer to the elimination of basic physical laws than deliberately driving on the wrong side of the road. In a way, it was a very spiritual itch. Gently, dreamily, not exceeding twenty miles an hour, I drove on that queer mirror side. Traffic was light. Cars that now and then passed me on the side I had abandoned to them, honked at me brutally. Cars coming toward me wobbled, swerved, cried out in fear. Presently I found myself approaching populated places. Passing through a red light was like a sip of forbidden Burgundy when I was a child. Meanwhile, complications were arising. I was being followed and escorted. Then in front of me I saw two cars placing themselves in such a manner as to completely block my way. With graceful movement I turned off the road, and after two or three big bounces, rode up a grassy slope, among surprised cows, and there I came to a gentle rocking stop.
Write me a line like “Passing through a red light was like a sip of forbidden Burgundy when I was a child,” and I’ll take Humbert Humbert into my head and into my heart. I’ll love him in all his awful, complex humanity, see him as one of our own, because I recognize something in his words—some delight, some humor, some essential memory—that tells me he is indeed one of us, even in all his awfulness. Our awfulness.
Something in his words. Because if words be made of breath and breath of life, then I expect wonderful words from the fiction I read. Story is one thing—yes, sure, we all expect some kind of story. And character, sure. But story is ubiquitous, and characters, too; the Daily News and The New York Times are full of stories and characters, as are network and cable TV, cocktail parties, family reunions. It is the careful, original, felicitous use of language that is rare and wondrous.
I expect the language in fiction not merely to tell a story and to create a character and to place that character in a particular moment that obliterates time; language in fiction must also record, re-create, what is intuited but never heard, sensed but never experienced. Language in fiction is obliged to invoke what cannot be said, what Virginia Woolf called in To the Lighthouse “the voice of the beauty of the world.”
Through the open window the voice of the beauty of the world came murmuring, too softly to hear exactly what it said—but what mattered if the meaning were plain?—entreating the sleepers (the house was full again; Mrs. Beckwith was staying there, also Mr. Carmichael), if they would not actually come down to the beach itself at least to lift the blind and look out. They would see then night flowing down in purple; his head crowned; his sceptre jewelled; and how in his eyes a child might look. And if they still faltered (Lily was tired out with travelling and slept almost at once; but Mr. Carmichael read a book by candlelight), if they still said no, that it was vapour, this splendour of his, and the dew had more power than he, and they preferred sleeping; gently then, without complaint, or argument, the voice would sing its song.
I expect the fiction I read to replicate, each story in its own way, the voice of the beauty of the world and to do it with just such humility and courage. I mean the humility and courage it takes to say, “What matter if the meaning were plain?” or “What matter if the world falter and refuse to hear?” I expect the fiction I read to carry with it the conviction that it is written with no other incentive than that it must be written. I expect the fiction I read to conform to that favorite word of dust-jacket copywriters worldwide: compelling, but with the understanding that both writer and reader are compelled equally—by a story told for no other reason than that it must be told, just as it must be read.
Excerpted from “What About the Baby?: Some Thoughts on the Art of Fiction” by Alice McDermott. Copyright © 2021 by Alice McDermott. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.