It’s hard to live in Boston and not have heard of Michael Patrick MacDonald. He wrote All Soul’s: A Family Story from Southie back in 1999, which told his story of growing up in Old Colony housing project. He lost four brothers to drugs, poverty and violence and watched firsthand the riots around the busing crisis. His second memoir Easter Rising: An Irish American Coming Up from Under , coming at the end of September, tells of how he got out of Southie. More than that, however, it’s a wonderful portrait of Boston in the 1980s as he ventures outside the walls of Old Colony into the punk scene. He writes about hearing the Sex Pistols for the first time, seeing Mission of Burma, shows at the Rat. His reputation as the quiet one in his large Irish family extend into his social life. While his friends get into drugs and alcohol, he stays sober somehow.
Family tragedies keep sucking him back to what he considers at the time a prison. MacDonald even writes about meeting his father for the first time at his wake. There are some moments of levity in the book, especially the scene where his grandfather accuses him of “worshipping the devil with the punk rocks” and gives him holy water. It’s also his grandfather who convinces him to visit Ireland while he’s in Europe bumming around and it’s there that MacDonald comes to terms with his Irish roots for the first time. It’s an energizing read and MacDonald avoids the cheesy sentiment that you might expect.
Another book I enjoyed recently was Nell Freudenberger’s The Dissident. I liked her story collection Lucky Girls from 2003 and wondered how her writing would translate to a novel. In this new book, the chapters go back and forth between Yuan Zhao, a Chinese performance artist and political dissident, to the Travers, a wealthy family in Los Angeles who host the artist during his residency in America. Zhao’s chapters reminisce on his unrequited love in Beijing back in earlier days during a time of artistic revolution and his growing obsession with a student in Los Angeles. The Traver’s chapters deal with the disintegration of the family as the various family members stumble along. I found Zhao’s story more interesting, perhaps because so many books these days document the dysfunctional family falling apart at the seams. But I think Freudenberger’s book also deals with larger themes. She spends a lot of time on artists and the concept of art. Her attention to detail and ability to probe the sometimes uncomfortable depths of the characters make this book a great first novel.