One of TIME Magazine's Top Ten Novels of the Year
A 2017 Kirkus Prize Finalist
A New York Times Book Review Notable Book
On a dim winter afternoon, a young Irish immigrant opens a gas tap in his Brooklyn tenement. He is determined to proveto the subway bosses who have recently fired him, to his pregnant wifethat “the hours of his life . . . belonged to himself alone.” In the aftermath of the fire that follows, Sister St. Saviour, an aging nun, a Little Nursing Sister of the Sick Poor, appears, unbidden, to direct the way forward for his widow and his unborn child.
In Catholic Brooklyn in the early part of the twentieth century, decorum, superstition, and shame collude to erase the man’s brief existence, and yet his suicide, though never spoken of, reverberates through many livestesting the limits and the demands of love and sacrifice, of forgiveness and forgetfulness, even through multiple generations. Rendered with remarkable delicacy, heart, and intelligence, Alice McDermott’s The Ninth Hour is a crowning achievement of one of the finest American writers at work today.
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About the Author
Date of Birth:June 27, 1953
Place of Birth:Brooklyn, New York
Education:B.A., State University of New York-Oswego, 1975; M.A., University of New Hampshire, 1978
Read an Excerpt
These Short Dark Days
February 3 was a dark and dank day altogether: cold spitting rain in the morning and a low, steel-gray sky the rest of the afternoon.
At four, Jim convinced his wife to go out to do her shopping before full darkness fell. He closed the door on her with a gentle wave. His hair was thinning and he was missing a canine on the right side, but he was nevertheless a handsome man who, at thirty-two, might still have passed for twenty. Heavy brows and deep-set, dark-lashed eyes that had been making women catch their breath since he was sixteen. Even if he had grown bald and toothless, as he seemed fated to do, the eyes would have served him long into old age.
His overcoat was on the hall tree beside the door. He lifted it and rolled it lengthwise against his thighs. Then he fitted it over the threshold, tucking the cloth of the sleeves and the hem as well as he could into the space beneath the door. Theirs was a railroad flat: kitchen in the back, dining room, living room, bedroom in the front. He needed only to push the heavy couch a few feet farther along the wall to block his wife's return. He stood on the seat to check that the glass transom above the door was tightly closed. Then he stepped down. He straightened the lace on the back of the couch and brushed away the shallow impression his foot had made on the horsehair cushion.
In the kitchen, he pressed his cheek to the cold enamel of the stove and slid his hand into the tight space between it and the yellow wall. He groped a bit. They kept a baited mousetrap back there, or had in the past, and it made him careful. He found the rubber hose that connected the oven to the gas tap and pulled at it as vigorously as he could, given the confined space. There was a satisfying pop, and a hiss that quickly faded. He straightened up with the hose in his hand. The kitchen window looked into the gray courtyard where, on better days, there would be lines of clothes baking in the sun, although the floor of the deep courtyard, even in the prettiest weather, was a junkyard and a jungle. There were rats and bedsprings and broken crates. A tangle of city-bred vegetation: a sickly tree, black vines, a long-abandoned attempt at a garden. From rag-and-bone man to wayward drunk, any voice that ever rose out of its depths was the voice of someone up to no good. Once, Annie, sitting on the windowsill with a clothespin in her mouth and a basket of wet linen at her feet, saw a man drag a small child through the muck and tie him to the rough pole that held the line. She watched the man take off his belt, and, with the first crack of it against the child's bare calves, she began to yell. She threw the clothespins at him, a potted ivy plant, and then the metal washbasin still filled with soapy water. Leaning halfway out the window herself, she threatened to call the police, the fire department, the Gerrity Society. The man, as if pursued only by a change in the weather, a sudden rain, glanced up briefly, shrugged, and then untied the sobbing child and dragged him away. "I know who you are," Annie cried. Although she didn't. She was an easy liar. She paced the street for an hour that afternoon, waiting for the man and the boy to reappear.
When Jim ran into the kitchen at the sound of her shouting, she was from head to waist out the window, with only one toe on the kitchen floor. He'd had to put his hands on her hips to ease her out of danger. Just one more of what had turned out to be too many days he hadn't gone in to work or had arrived too late for his shift.
His trouble was with time. Bad luck for a trainman, even on the BRT. His trouble was, he liked to refuse time. He delighted in refusing it. He would come to the end of a long night, to the inevitability of 5 a.m. — that boundary, that abrupt wall toward which all the night's pleasures ran (drink, talk, sleep, or Annie's warm flesh) — and while other men, poor sheep, gave in every morning, turned like lambs in the chute from the pleasures of sleep or drink or talk or love to the duties of the day, he had been aware since his childhood that with the easiest refusal, eyes shut, he could continue as he willed. I'm not going, he'd only have to murmur. I won't be constrained. Of course, it didn't always require refusing the whole day. Sometimes just the pleasure of being an hour or two late was enough to remind him that he, at least, was his own man, that the hours of his life — and what more precious commodity did he own? — belonged to himself alone.
Two weeks ago they had discharged him for unreliability and insubordination. Inside the shell of his flesh, the man he was — not the blushing, humiliated boy who stood ham-handed before them — simply shook off the blow and turned away, indifferent, free. But Annie wept when he told her, and then said angrily, through her tears, that there was a baby coming, knowing even as she said it that to break the news to him in this way was to condemn the child to a life of trouble.
He took the tea towels she had left to dry on the sink, wound them into ropes, and placed them along the sill of the kitchen window.
He carried the length of rubber tubing through the living room and into the bedroom. He slipped off his shoes, put the tube to his mouth, as if to pull smoke. He had seen this in a picture book back home: a fat sultan on a red pillow doing much the same. He sat on the edge of the bed. He bowed his head and prayed: Now and at the hour of our death. He lay back on the bed. The room had gotten dimmer still. Hour of our. Our hour. At home, his mother, the picture book spread out on her wide lap, would reach behind him to turn the clock face to the wall.
Within this very hour he would put his head on her shoulder once again. Or would he? There were moments when his faith fell out from under him like a trapdoor. He stood up. Found his nightshirt underneath his pillow and twisted it, too. Then placed it along the edge of the one window, again pushing the material into the narrow crevice where the frame met the sill, knowing all the while that the gesture was both ineffectual and unnecessary.
Down in the street, there was a good deal of movement — women mostly, because the shops were open late and the office workers had not yet begun to file home. Dark coats and hats. A baby buggy or two, the wheels turning up a pale spray. He watched two nuns in black cloaks and white wimples, their heads bent together, skim over the gray sidewalk. He watched until they were gone, his cheek now pressed to the cool window glass. When he turned back into the room, the light had failed in every corner and he had to put out his hand as he walked around the pale bed, back to his own side.
He stretched out once again. Playfully lifted the hose to one eye, as if he would see along its length the black corridor of a subway tunnel, lit gold at the farthest end by the station ahead. Then he placed the hose in his mouth and breathed deeply once more. He felt the nausea, the sudden vertigo, he had been expecting all along but had forgotten he was expecting. He closed his eyes and swallowed. Outside, a mother called to a child. There was the slow clopping of a horse-drawn cart. The feathered sound of wheels turning in street water. Something dropped to the floor in the apartment just above him — a sewing basket, perhaps — there was a thud and then a scratchy chorus of wooden spools spinning. Or maybe it was coins, spilled from a fallen purse.
AT SIX, the streetlamps against the wet dark gave a polish to the air. There was the polish of lamplight, too, on streetcar tracks and windowpanes and across the gleaming surface of the scattered black puddles in the street. Reflection of lamplight as well on the rump of the remaining fire truck and on the pale faces of the gathered crowd, with an extra gold sparkle and glint on anyone among them who wore glasses. Sister St. Saviour, for instance, a Little Nursing Sister of the Sick Poor, who had spent the afternoon in the vestibule of the Woolworth's at Borough Hall, her alms basket in her lap. She was now on her way back to the convent, her bladder full, her ankles swollen, her round glasses turned toward the lamplight and the terrible scent of doused fire on the winter air.
The pouch with the money she had collected today was tied to her belt; the small basket she used was tucked under her cloak and under her arm. The house where the fire had been looked startled: the windows of all four floors were wide open, shade cords and thin curtains flailing in the cold air. Although the rest of the building was dark, the vestibule at the top of the stone stoop was weirdly lit, crowded with policemen and firemen carrying lamps. The front door was open, as, it appeared, was the door to the apartment on the parlor floor. Sister St. Saviour wanted only to walk on, to get to her own convent, her own room, her own toilet — her fingers were cold and her ankles swollen and her thin basket was crushed awkwardly under her arm — but still she brushed through the crowd and climbed the steps. There was a limp fire hose running along the shadowy base of the stone banister. Two of the officers in the hallway, turning to see her, tipped their hats and then put out their hands as if she had been summoned. "Sister," one of them said. He was flushed and perspiring, and even in the dull light, she could see that the cuffs of his jacket were singed. "Right in here."
The apartment was crowded with people, perhaps every tenant in the place. The smell of smoke and wet ash, burned wool, burned hair, was part and parcel of the thick pools of candlelight in the room, and of the heavy drone of whispered conversation. There were two groups: one was gathered around a middle-aged man in shirtsleeves and carpet slippers who was sitting in a chair by the window, his face in his hands. The other, across the room, hovered beside a woman stretched out on a dark couch, under a fringed lamp that was not lit. She had a cloth applied to her head, but she seemed to be speaking sensibly to the thin young man who leaned over her. When she saw the nun, the woman raised a limp hand and said, "She's in the bedroom, Sister." Her arm from wrist to elbow was glistening with a shiny salve — butter, perhaps.
"You might leave off with that grease," Sister said. "Unless you're determined to be basted." The young man turned at this, laughing. He wore a gray fedora and had a milk tooth in his grin. "Have the courtesy to doff your hat," she told him.
It was Sister St. Saviour's vocation to enter the homes of strangers, mostly the sick and the elderly, to breeze into their apartments and to sail comfortably through their rooms, to open their linen closets or china cabinets or bureau drawers — to peer into their toilets or the soiled handkerchiefs clutched in their hands — but the frequency with which she inserted herself into the homes of strangers had not diminished over the years, her initial impulse to stand back, to shade her eyes. She dipped her head as she passed through the parlor, into a narrow corridor, but she saw enough to conclude that a Jewish woman lived here — the woman on the couch, she was certain, a Jewish woman, she only guessed, because of the fringed lampshade, the upright piano against the far wall, the dark oil paintings in the narrow hallway that seemed to depict two ordinary peasants, not saints. A place unprepared for visitors, arrested, as things so often were by crisis and tragedy, in the midst of what should have been a private hour. She saw as she passed by that there was a plate on the small table in the tiny kitchen, that it contained a half piece of bread, well bitten and stained with a dark gravy. A glass of tea on the edge of a folded newspaper.
In the candlelit bedroom, where two more policemen were conferring in the far corner, there were black stockings hung over the back of a chair, a mess of hairbrushes and handkerchiefs on the low dresser, a gray corset on the threadbare carpet at the foot of the bed. There was a girl on the bed, sideways, her dark skirt spread around her, as if she had fallen there from some height. Her back was to the room and her face to the wall. Another woman leaned over her, a hand on the girl's shoulder.
The policemen nodded to see the nun, and the shorter one took off his cap as he moved toward her. He, too, was singed about the cuffs. He had a heavy face, stale breath, and bad dentures, but there was compassion in the way he gestured with his short arms toward the girl on the bed, toward the ceiling and the upstairs apartment where the fire had been, a compassion that seemed to weigh down his limbs. Softhearted, Sister thought, one of us. The girl, he said, had come in from her shopping and found the door to her place blocked from the inside. She went to her neighbors, the man next door and the woman who lived here. They helped her push the door open, and then the man lit a match to hold against the darkness. There was an explosion. Luckily, the policeman said, he himself was just at the corner and was able to put the fire out while neighbors carried the three of them down here. Inside, in the bedroom, he found a young man on the bed. Asphyxiated. The girl's husband.
Sister St. Saviour drew in her breath, blessed herself. "He fell asleep, poor man," she said softly. "The pilot light must have gone out."
The officer glanced over his shoulder, toward the bed, and then took the Sister's elbow. He walked her out to the narrow hall. Now they stood in the kitchen doorway; the arrested tableau: the bitten bread, the dark gravy, the glass of reddish tea on a small wooden table, the chair pushed back (there had been an urgent knock on the door), the newspaper with its crooked lines of black ink.
"He killed himself," the officer whispered, his breath sour, as if in reaction to the situation he was obliged to report. "Turned on the gas. Lucky he didn't take everyone else with him."
Accustomed as she was to breezing into the lives of strangers, Sister accepted the information with only a discreet nod, but in the space of it, in the time it took her merely to turn her cheek and bow her head, her eyes disappeared behind the stiff edge of her bonnet. When she looked up again — her eyes behind the glasses were small and brown and caught the little bit of light the way only a hard surface could, marble or black tin, nothing watery — the truth of the suicide was both acknowledged and put away. She had pried handkerchiefs from the tight fists of young women, opened them to see the blood mixed with phlegm, and then balled them up again, nodding in just such a way. She had breezed into the homes of strangers and seen the bottles in the bin, the poor contents of a cupboard, the bruise in a hidden place, seen as well, once, a pale, thumb-sized infant in a basin filled with blood and, saying nothing at all, had bowed her head and nodded in just such a way.
"What's the girl's name?" she asked.
The officer frowned. "Mc-something. Annie, they called her. Irish extraction," he added. "That's why I thought to call for you."
Sister smiled. Those button eyes had dark depths. "Is that so?" she said. They both knew no one had called for her. She had been on her way home, merely passing by. She dipped her head again, forgiving him his vanity — didn't he say, too, that he'd put out the fire himself? "I'll go to her, then," she said.
As she stepped away she saw the milk-toothed young man, still in his hat, approach the officer. "Hey, O'Neil," the man shouted. No courtesy in him.
Inside the shadowed bedroom, the neighbor woman who stood at the bedside had her eyes elsewhere, on the gloaming at the far side of the cluttered room. She was a stout woman, about forty. No doubt there were children waiting to be put to bed, a husband to be placated. A woman with a family of her own, with troubles of her own, could not be expected to attend to the sorrows of another indefinitely.
The nun only nodded as the two exchanged places. At the door of the room, the woman looked over her shoulder and whispered, "Can I do anything for you, Sister?"
Sister St. Saviour recalled a joke she had once made, when a young nun asked her the same, in the midst of a busy morning. "Yes. Can you go tinkle for me?"
But she said, "We'll be fine." It was what she wanted this Annie Mc-something to hear.
When the woman was gone, Sister reached inside her cloak and took the small basket from under her arm. It was a flimsy thing, woven of unblessed palms, and much worse the wear for being crushed against her body so long. She straightened and reshaped it a bit, catching as she did the green scent that the warmth of her own flesh and the work of her hands could sometimes coax from the dried reeds. She placed the basket on the table beside the bed and untied the money pouch from her belt. It was all coins today, mostly pennies. She placed the pouch in the basket and then sat carefully on the side of the bed, her kidneys aching, her feet throbbing inside her shoes. She looked at the girl's form, the length of her back and the curve of her young hip, her thin legs beneath the wide skirt. Suddenly the girl turned in the bed and threw herself into Sister's lap, weeping.
Excerpted from "The Ninth Hour"
Copyright © 2017 Alice McDermott.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
These Short Dark Days,
The Ninth Hour,
The Convent Child,
Endless Length of Days,
Also by Alice McDermott,
A Note About the Author,