Easter Rising: An Irish American Coming Up From Under
By Michael Patrick MacDonald
Houghton Mifflin, 248 pp., illustrated, $24
In New York, the city of a million writers, books are published every day to huge multi media acclaim or a smattering of leaflets in the East Village. But no matter how big the splash made by a given book, the ripples soon subside and the writer returns to his or her mostly genteel pursuits. Here in Boston, however, books often arrive and sometimes endure amid a riot of parochial pride, counterbalanced by an abundance of ill will. In a place that is simultaneously the high-minded ness and small-mindedness capital of the world, certain writers maintain the ferocity of prize fighters, they and their stories taking on all comers.
This phenomenon is especially evident among practitioners of ``Boston noir," the gritty local fare dating back to the novels of George V. Higgins that in recent years has included the work of Dennis Lehane, Chuck Hogan, Michael Patrick MacDonald, Roland Merullo, Richard Marinick, and a raft of former low-level thugs turned litterateurs. The books written by these men have raised more than a few hackles, forcing local readers to choose which writer's camp they are in. Some of the disputes, even among the writers themselves, have gotten pretty ugly. In this subdivision of literature, the toughest guy is the one who sells the most books.
MacDonald's 1999 memoir, ``All Souls," galvanized this trend and paved the way for several other first hand accounts of Boston's mean streets. MacDonald's tale of growing up in South Boston's Old Colony project in the 1970s and '80s, beset by drugs, violence , and the premature death of four of his siblings, attracted a large number of readers from Southie's neighborhoods and beyond, enthralling some and enraging others with his depiction of that insular world. The death of his beloved and charismatic brother Frankie, a one-time Golden Gloves boxer killed during an armored car robbery, was a particular flashpoint, as various parties squabbled over what really happened .
In a coming -of -age tale that owes more to writers like Jim Carroll and Jack Kerouac than the muscle -bound scribblers of present -day Boston, MacDonald's new book, ``Easter Rising ," transcends these old battles. As a young teenager wracked by grief and guilt, in 1979 MacDonald began to venture across the Broadway Bridge into the underground punk rock scene that was thriving in Boston, sneaking into after -hours shows, pumping his fist at the rafters , and slam dancing into the wee hours. Listening to the Ramones and Patti Smith, MacDonald realized ``that it felt a lot better to be pissed off than to be sad." While other kids his age strutted around Southie with their blow -dried haircuts, dressed in khaki pants and polo shirts with the collars turned up, MacDonald jumped the turnstiles and rode the T to clubs like the Channel and the Rathskeller wearing boxer shorts over an old pair of long johns and his grandfather's discarded wing-tip shoes. Avoiding the cocaine and angel dust that were decimating the poorer neighborhoods of Boston, MacDonald, nicknamed ``Pineapple" for his patchy, New Wave haircut, would spend the night with his music pals, returning to his blacked-out room at dawn, tiptoeing past his sleeping mother, Helen.
Helen MacDonald is the most vivid character in her talented son's ensemble. A single mother of 11 children fathered by three men (Michael was the only one sired by George Fox, who lived just a few miles away but was a stranger to him), Helen is a career welfare recipient, living in a double-wide ``breakthrough" apartment in Old Colony, at once helpless and defiant against the irresistible social forces that are killing her kids. Her most sensitive child, Michael, is appalled by his mother's accordion playing, her partying, and the spike heels and leopard -print mini skirts she wears into middle age. But their bond, raw and unspoken and real, forms the stiff Irish backbone of MacDonald's story. When her teenage boy's love for alternative music leads him first to the roiling club scene at places like the A7 and CBGB in New York, and later to London, where he meets Joe Strummer of the Clash, Helen feigns anger but is mostly relieved that Michael has gotten out of Southie.
Getting away from his roots so the hero can return to them, changed and enlarged and enlightened, is a staple of the coming -of -age tale. The main problem with MacDonald's effort here is that some of the chapters in this slender volume read like outlines for a deeper reckoning with the subject, and occasionally he lapses into moralizing about race and class where more of his sharply drawn scenes would be preferable.
But the story moves inexorably toward the 32-year-old MacDonald's trip to Ireland with his mother in 1998, back to the ``auld sod," where churchgoers are taught to spit on their red prayer books and rub the ink on their cheeks to look healthy for the parish priest. In tiny pubs and cramped living rooms, the MacDonalds experience marathon sessions of the ``craic," the alcohol- and- tobacco- fueled banter that has long marked Irish socializing and survival. And within his celebration of that fine institution, MacDonald has underscored a greater truth -- that even tough guys love their mothers.
Jay Atkinson is the author, most recently, of ``Legends of Winter Hill," and a novel, ``City in Amber," due out next year. He teaches writing at Salem State College.