“Small Mercies” by Eddie Joyce


small mercies

I appreciated and thoroughly enjoyed this novel, which is a portrait of a family,  a portrait of everyday life taking place in Staten Island, NY.  The story reminded me of my own roots, growing up in Queens, NY in the 1960s and 1970s.  Maybe a different place, but the same cultural mix, where Irish Americans and Italian Americans frequently marry and produce the most beautiful black haired blue eyed children.   The author, Eddie Joyce (who is from Staten Island), writes as if the actual island is one of the characters.  The Verrazano Bridge is a metaphor for the ethnic customs and class battles just as the Queensboro Bridge is for that NY borough.

In this story, an Irish girl from Brooklyn marries an Italian boy from Staten Island where they live and raise their family of three boys. The story revolves around the week leading before the birthday party of the couple’s seven-year-old grandson, the son of a firefighter, their youngest, who was a casualty of 9/11.  Each member of the family has a variety of knots they must untangle before they meet the boyfriend of the widow of the firefighter.   The young widow, who is very close to the family (of course, this is Staten Island), and has been a part of them since she was a teenager.  She too is dealing with the changes in her life.  And if one thing is clear, in this novel it is that the only constant in life is change.

The narration shifts each time a family member reminiscences about their own youth to the present day.  The oldest son is the only one who leaves the borough to become a successful lawyer and marry a WASP (a foreign religion to the family), but immediately before the birthday party, we learn that his professional and marital life is crumbling. The mother’s relationship with her eldest adult son is and always was strained. “He was fourteen or fifteen. Cock of the walk…. Already entitled, not in a rich-kid way but expectant…She wanted the little prick to taste some disappointment. Strange how you can hate your own kids at times.”  The middle son is an alcoholic, like his maternal grandfather and basically is the black sheep of the family who never recuperated from his brother’s death.  He was “a drunken ruined memorial to his dead brother.”  As a grown man he often slips into his parents’ home “drunk and melancholy, while they were sleeping, spreading one sadness over another.” His parents thought they had reached rock bottom when he was a young adult and was arrested.  They realized he would never sober up with the love of the right girl, because the right girl would never date this particular son.  And then real tragedy struck when death took their youngest son on 9/11.  The dead firefighter is very much alive in all their memories.  He was the sweet brother, everyone’s favorite.  His personality was “easy as a hammock…(in his room there is still an award reading) MOST IMPROVED PLAYER, FARRELL JUNIOR VARSITY 1990–91.”  For years his widow couldn’t bring herself to date because she thought, “He was the absolute best possible version of a man, the absolute best. To try to love some lesser version of him would be the greatest insult to his memory,” which is why it took her seven years to attempt to find love again.

While giving voice to six different family perspectives, the author uses flashbacks to develop well-drawn life histories.  I felt as if I was going through the family photo album, flipping pages from their youth to the present day. (And when looking at her teen sons in this imaginary album I always thought of the character “Vinnie Barbarino” played by an unknown John Travolta from the 1970’s TV show “Welcome Back, Kotter”).    Then I turn a page, and the present day grandmother of the seven-year-old grandson “takes a quick look in the mirror. Not for vanity, not anymore, but for its older sister: dignity.”  And her husband who is shocked to see his long-dead father’s Italian “right off the boat” face in the mirror looking back at him.  To bring his characters to life, the author focuses on family, community, marrying young, tradition, and participation in the NCAA basketball pool at the neighborhood watering hole with lots of booze all around.  I usually felt as if I was sitting there myself sharing a pint with a neighbor while making bets. The author takes the reader through four generations of an immigrant family.  My favorite author, Richard Russo, who also writes about blue-collar families, summed it up perfectly: “Eddie Joyce’s terrific first novel is so American that the story might as well have taken place at the base of the Statue of Liberty.”

However, nostalgia can be funny and play tricks with our memories.  I so liked reading about a time and place when there was no need to be politically correct about, well anything, but I guess I like to forget that back in my own youth some members of my Queens community were silently hurting because anything outside the norm was simply unimaginable.  In my real life, a boy in high school who is now a 60-year-old man just came out as gay.  He spent his whole life lying solely because he was a tough Queens kid and gay does not fit into that mold.  But in this book the reader does not need to think of such discrepancies, we only need to focus on this family’s strength and failures that are common to Staten Island (or any NYC neighborhood).  There is much-noted pain in this book about an ordinary family.  They weathered many storms, a husband made a wrong career move and someone else gets rich on his father’s butcher shop, a son cannot tame is addictions, a wife almost has an affair, a son dies and now another man will be raising his children.   But each chapter has a “small mercy.”   Joyce focuses in on how human we all are, and that sometimes a “small mercy” is just being able to enjoy a good veal parmesan sandwich.

(If you enjoyed this book try “The Clancys of Queens: A Memoir” by Tara Clancy).

Find all my reviews at https://www.goodreads.com/review/list/4793025-martie-nees-record?shelf=read