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September 15, 2006

AFTER THIS
By Alice McDermott
(Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 279 pages, $24)

The Keanes of Alice McDermott's sixth novel, "After This," are a typical Irish-Catholic Long Island family. We meet John and Mary -- father and mother -- with sons Jacob and Michael and daughters Annie and Clare. They live mostly mundane lives, which also means lives filled with adventure, disappointment, joy and tragedy. On the surface, their experience seems roughly interchangeable with that of any one of a thousand middle-class American families of the mid- to late 20th century. What makes their story exceptional is the pitch-perfect writing of Ms. McDermott, a winner of the 1998 National Book Award for "Charming Billy."

Through sharp, funny, heartbreaking and breathtaking vignettes, Ms. McDermott conveys the family's evolution (and America's too) -- from John and Mary's first meeting at a diner in postwar New York City through the children's traditional Catholic school youth in the 1950s to the inevitable turbulence of the 1960s.

Ms. McDermott's deft touch makes us feel ourselves to be more than just fly-on-the-wall observers. We're a part of this family, sharing in the anxieties of Mary and John as their children grow into adulthood and as they themselves must try to grasp the new freedoms of their children's generation. We fret about timid Jacob's bad draft number as the Vietnam War rages. We share in the awkwardness and confusion of Michael's and Annie's encounters with the opposite sex. Sweet youngest child Clare never gives any trouble, so we are shocked by the fate that befalls her.

Among much else, "After This" shows the profound challenge -- shared by many families -- of managing the mundane, of simply facing one thing after another. At the end of the novel, Ms. McDermott doesn't tie the Keane story up into a pretty bow and say, "They lived happily ever after." We are left to wonder what became of them, like friends with whom we have suddenly lost touch.

---- Kate Flatley LaVoie

THE END OF COMMITMENT
By Paul Hollander
(Ivan R. Dee, 391 pages, $28.,95)

The distinguished scholar Paul Hollander is perhaps best known for "Political Pilgrims" (1981), his chronicle of Western intellectuals who have found secular salvation in various despots and utopian ideologies around the world. (Think of what the Soviet Union once was to American radicals or what Fidel Castro has been to a later generation of American "progressives.") Now he is sounding a related theme: the loss of such godless faith, the disavowal of utopian political allegiances.

Mr. Hollander documents defectors and dissidents in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, as well as in China, Vietnam, Cuba and other Third World communist regimes. He also draws portraits of intellectuals and activists in the West who have come to feel disillusioned with their former ideological selves. Here the locus classicus may well be "The God That Failed" (1950), whose contributors, including Stephen Spender, Richard Wright, André Gide and Arthur Koestler, had once supported the Soviet Union.

Among the other disillusioned figures whom Mr. Hollander discusses, stretching across the postwar decades, are the historian Eugene Genovese, the novelist Doris Lessing and the intellectual Susan Sontag. And then there are those who have resisted disillusionment -- Mr. Hollander devotes a chapter to the type. Among them, the British historian Eric Hobsbawm may be the most striking.

As late as 1994, Mr. Hobsbawm told an interviewer that, even if he had known in the mid-1930s that "millions of people were dying in the Soviet experiment," he would have still supported it, for "the chance of a new world being born in great suffering would still have been worth backing." Noam Chomsky is another (unwavering) figure of commitment, although he seems to believe less in a positive ideology than in the evil deeds of the U.S. and Israel.

Mr. Hollander makes a distinction between those in the West and those living under communism. The members of the second group find themselves enmeshed in societies that forbid nonconformity. Thus people with an individualistic strain -- such as Liu Binyan, a writer who, beginning in the 1950s, exposed the failings of the Chinese communist regime -- are victimized by the government and turn away from ideological commitment. Others, like Vietnam's Bui Tin, a regime-stalwart who lost faith in the 1980s, find the theory of communism badly corrupted in practice and choose self-exile.

In contrast to Liu Binyan or Bui Tin, Western thinkers are shielded from the ordeal of living within the systems they advocate. Their early radical commitment, meanwhile, may have a lot to do with personal identity and emotion. Mr. Hollander quotes Koestler noting that political belief, though partly the product of reason, matures "in regions [of the mind] where no persuasion can penetrate." Private imperatives -- even a rebellion against family and friends -- may blend into a larger political morality: A passionate faith in socialism subsumes all that is personal into the political.

Mr. Hollander rightly laments, in such cases, the lack of boundary between emotion and reason. But it is also true that the worst of communism emerged from a "scientific" and supposedly hyper-rational system of thought. Most of the world finds itself outraged at monstrous figures like Stalin and Pol Pot not because they were too passionate but because it was impossible to imagine them shedding a single tear for the millions they murdered.

---- Abheek Bhattacharya

WHEN MADELINE WAS YOUNG
By Jane Hamilton
(Doubleday, 274 pages, $22.95)

Growing up near Chicago in the 1950s and '60s, Mac Maciver believes that he must watch out for his older sister, Madeline. As Mac sees it, Madeline, beautiful but simple-minded, would be sexual prey for the neighborhood fast boys, among them Mac's cousin Buddy. But Mac, the narrator of Jane Hamilton's exquisite fifth novel, "When Madeline Was Young," is wrong.

Taking as her territory the misconceptions that color childhood, Ms. Hamilton (winner of the Pen Hemingway Award) moves seamlessly between present and past. As Mac, now a physician, looks at his youth from the vantage point of middle age, the segments of his childhood and early adulthood come together. Gradually, he realizes that Buddy is not a sexual predator and that Madeline is not his sister.

She is, in fact, his father's first wife, whom his father divorced after a bicycle accident left her brain injured. His second wife, Mac's mother, believes that Madeline has the mental capacity of a 7-year-old and has treated her as she would a child: outfitting her in pink dresses and ribbons, decorating her room with dolls and frilly canopies, even letting Madeline climb into bed with her and her husband. But Madeline is not a child; she is (or seems to be) a mentally compromised woman with the emotions and sexual proclivities of an adult.

This carefully nuanced tale has the texture and discursive quality of a memoir, in which the narrator deciphers family secrets by reflecting on pivotal moments from the past. Sorting through his memory, Mac envisions scenes from his youth in a slow, Proust-like manner. As he reminisces, he realizes that appearances are not merely deceptive, they can be destructive. Spurred on by his wife and daughters, he decides to make things right, and by the time this quietly mesmerizing story ends, he has found some measure of success.

---- Diane Scharper

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