Book Review: ‘Mercy Street,’ by Jennifer Haigh

Haigh accurately understands the details of rural and urban poverty. The extensive trailer in which Claudia grew up is essentially a shipping container, sultry in the summer and freezing in the winter. Its wall-to-wall rug “was piled up so long and densely that it seemed to suck up anything that fell on it. Spilled milk, puzzle pieces, Smarties. Cat food, holster, molten dipstick, Lego blocks. And the homes of people like Birches are just an expression of their poverty. Their diet of processed foods makes diabetes a rite of passage into adulthood. Their TV never fails to turn on. Urban poverty is not much better. Tim Flynn, Claudia’s weed agent, whom she considers a “kind,” lives in a “three-story house wrapped in rough aluminum siding… the residences of cheap, aged workers.” 100 years old and built to 50 years old”.

And then there is religion. Because Boston, as Claudia observes, is “the most Catholic city in America,” it is not surprising that many of the protesters outside Mercy Street are Catholics who consider abortion a mortal sin. For the tragically lonely Anthony, however, it had less to do with church doctrine than with community. Having suffered brain damage from a beam falling on a construction site, Anthony now finds it difficult to think even simple thoughts to draw conclusions. In his confused mind, they swirled and collided and repeated on a loop. His only relief came from attending daily Mass at St. Dymphna’s failed and smoked weed, both calming his feverish brain. If asked, he would probably say that he is against abortion, but his bigger worry is losing the church itself because of “the matter with the priests.” If St. Dymphna has to close, Anthony’s situation (he lives in the basement of his mother’s house) will be much worse.

The novel’s scariest and most intriguing character is Victor, whose taciturnity seems almost innate. It really started after he returned from Vietnam and fell in love with Barb Vance, a girl he clearly didn’t get along with. When she learns she’s pregnant, she intentionally knocks him into a drunken domestic argument at the start of a long holiday weekend, then calls the police and arrests him. By the time he got out of prison, she had an abortion, she knew he would never agree.

From this point on, Victor’s rampage towards women is at its maximum, although we begin to suspect that his anger is a coping mechanism that allows him to ignore a another truth he doesn’t want to contemplate – that women in general, not just Barb, watch him come and don’t like what they see. Even those who want to have children may not necessarily want to.

His other coping mechanism (if you’re Victor, you need at least two) is political ideology. Although he became an anti-abortion fighter, for him abortion was not a religious or moral issue. Victor doesn’t see women as women, but as “women” who were brought to this earth for one reason: to give birth. Although the temperament cannot be different from the gentle and sweet Anthony, the two men have one thing in common. Both are profound nostalgia, Anthony for a Catholic Church he was too young to experience, with laid-back passions and scaly medallions and Latin Masses, and Victor for a country America he’s barely old enough to remember – a country before Vietnam, the sexual revolution and the women’s movement, where it was clear white men were in charge.

Now a white supremacist, Victor is particularly angry with white women for allowing himself to be “overwhelmed” by his brown and black sisters four-to-one. He gets this statistic and most of his other information from Doug Straight, the right-wing radio personality he’s been listening to for decades. (In “Mercy Street,” Straight serves a ghostly function similar to that of the optometrist, Dr. TJ Eckleburg in “The Great Gatsby.” For the day when white America finally wakes up. A bit ironic, Anthony’s problem is that he has difficulty stringing thoughts together to arrive at a coherent philosophy, while Victor’s problem is that he can do it. rather, the common thread between the novel’s key male characters is how deeply each has become trapped and isolated.

At this point in a heated review, critics will sometimes come up with a visceral way to prove that they are tough and serious minded and not easily stolen, so I would suggest here that some readers may be disappointed that a lot of the characters in “Mercy Street” get exactly what is coming to them. They may suspect the author – what? Involvement? technique? – at work. But I argued the opposite: that the characters themselves had to work overtime, their whole lives, to get to where they landed. Haigh doesn’t manipulate them, just notices their choices, big and small. It’s not fake, it’s art. And I was gobsmacked. Book Review: ‘Mercy Street,’ by Jennifer Haigh

Fry Electronics Team

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