Short stories dominated by postwar Irish-American families and
marked by an entertainingly strange sensibility.
In her ninth book, McGarry (Ocean State, 2010, etc.)
veers from conventional to consciously weird. And even her conventional is
often a bit out there. Several households feature Irish-American Catholics in
the 1950s-’60s with at least one would-be nun or priest. There’s usually too
much booze and anger and too little money. Children often bear the brunt of the
overall title’s irony. In “Tower of Ivory, House of Gold,” a teen nun wannabe
panics when her fervor wanes and mortifies her flesh with coarse twine and
sandpaper. One story is narrated by a boy who sounds like a noir hoodlum and
gets in trouble while trying on priestly vestments in a Catholic supplies store
(“And the Little One Said”). In “Sleeping Beauty,” a girl constantly spits
out pieces of fur, like a human cat, angering her mother, who sends her to
school on her birthday wearing an enema bag as a necklace. The less-oblique
fairy-tale retelling of “Rella” has Cinderella find a bracelet in a doughnut.
Two couples, both childless, enjoy some normalcy. One appears in a hodge-podge
of a tale that traces the back story of a lesbian couple (“The System”). The
other appears in a long story titled “Someone Is There.” A psychiatrist falls
in love with his first inpatient, a woman mired in depression when her
religious vocation vanishes; her three brothers are priests. When his sessions
are over for the day, the shrink finds “his own ego [is] replenished” by
driving in his antique Mercedes Benz, named Hildegard.
McGarry at her best pushes the envelope just past realism in a
way that can be comic, creepy, and poignant, putting her in the school of
Lorrie Moore and George Saunders.
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