ABSOLUTION, by Alice McDermott
Alice McDermott is rightly celebrated for her granular, nuanced portraits of mid-20th-century life, with a particular focus on Irish Americans. Her fans may be startled, then, to find themselves plunged into 1963 Saigon at the start of her enveloping new novel, “Absolution,” whose lofty title belies its sensory, gritty humanity.
McDermott’s contextual leap is not as great as it might seem. The primary narrator of “Absolution,” Patricia Kelly, and her husband, Peter, a Navy intelligence officer, are Irish American New Yorkers who might easily be part of the same family tree as Billy Lynch from McDermott’s 1998 National Book Award winner, “Charming Billy”; Marie from “Someone”; the Daileys from “At Weddings and Wakes”; or the Keanes from “After This,” my personal favorite. Indeed, Peter Kelly’s sense of mission in Vietnam is bound up with his Catholicism; President Kennedy, a Catholic, initially supported the Catholic president of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem, in part through the efforts of a Central Intelligence Agency that was jokingly referred to as the “Catholic Intelligence Agency.”
Although she opens with an epigraph from “The Quiet American,” Graham Greene’s 1955 indictment of catastrophic American blundering in post-colonial Vietnam, McDermott asserts her revisionist focus in the novel’s third sentence: “You have no idea what it was like. For us. The women, I mean. The wives.” She then delves into the lives and activities of the blunderers’ wives during the last era in American life in which being a husband’s “helpmeet” was widely seen as a worthy fulfillment of feminine ambition.
Shortly after their arrival in Saigon, shy, 23-year-old Patricia, newly wed and in awe of Peter, meets Charlene, a WASP who is rich, potty-mouthed, pill-popping and lawbreaking — all things Patricia decidedly is not. A bossy insider and mother of three, Charlene masterminds a “cabal” of charitable military-industrial wives bent on helping poor and ailing Vietnamese. Their work consists of channeling black-market profits into buying trinkets and candy to distribute to hospitalized children (some of whom may be recovering from war wounds) and their impoverished families.
In passive Patricia (whom she immediately nicknames Tricia), the aggressive, polarizing Charlene finds a perfect foil for her escalating charitable schemes. Their alliance — more than a partnership and less than a friendship — results, first, in the marketing of “Saigon Barbies” outfitted in Vietnamese attire, and later, in orchestrating the tailoring of exquisite outfits for residents of a leper colony.
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