Author, Richard McCann has written a powerful story of sibling love and motherly adoration. Told in a series of nine snapshots of short stories that briefly peer into the life of one man, Mother of Sorrows effectively blends the past and present, weaving an exotic tapestry of secrets and truths.
The narrator, whose father died when he was eleven, looks back with remembrance and longing at his innocent youth and the strange, intense relationship that he had with his venerated mother and wayward brother. His was a family holding onto the post war innocence, but it was world that he tried to flee in an attempt to create a life of his own.
From an early age the narrator had a penchant for feminine beauty. For him, beauty was because beauty was defined as “feminine” and therefore it became hopelessly confused with his mother. Together with his best friend, Denny, they would spent hours in the gloom of his living room dreaming of fabulous prizes and inspecting the secrets of his mothers dresser: “her satin nightgowns and padded brassieres, her triangular cloisonné earrings, her brooch of enameled butterfly wings.”
Fearful of the repercussions from his father and also from Davis, his brother, our narrator abandons the frocks and frills while also eventually abandoning Denny. But he remains besotted with his mother and admits, “the instinct for survival was what my mother and I had in common – no ideals or principles – absolutely nothing.”
But it is his relationship with his brother that proves to be the most complex. Davis, fraught with insecurities and hopelessness, is picked up in a public park for gross indecency and struggles with dugs for most of his life. Davis represents those parts of our narrator that were “angry, and desirous, rebellious and sexual and scared.”
Perhaps the most memorable moment in the novel occurs when Davis propositions our narrator in a Dupont Circle gay bar. He’s initially appalled, but also secretly titillated. And when he leaves Davis standing on the sidewalk alone, he realizes that he’s afraid that he would see himself reflected in him, “to glimpse those parts of himself he most feared and this repudiated as belonging only to him.”
McCann soars in scenes that are resonant, poetic and exact, and the visions of gay life in the 60s and 70s remain indelibly imprinted in the readers mind. Our embattled protagonist finds himself living a hedonistic existence in France, Spain, and Morocco. It is here that he meets Eduardo, his one true love, whose language has always been touch “with it’s own grammar of pleasure and consolation; it’s inflections of sorrow.”
Our narrator admits that he is trying to tell is and to inform us of his maleness, and to reassure us that he has survived, perhaps without noticeable complexes. This is one of McCann’s great strengths, as can meld the past with the present, creating for us a world where the harsh realties of AIDS, alcoholism, drug abuse, and a mother’s love are depicted with staggering clarity and without sentimentality.
Mother of Sorrows is a tale of survival and shrewd self-defense, where spouses must deal with the death of their children and siblings must deal with betrayal. In this story, children suffer the consequences of their parents’ mismatched love, and mothers and fathers forever skirt around the issue of their sons’ sexuality.
The way, in which the narrator’s life is affected by the death of his brother and of his lover, and his subsequent battle with HIV, forms a powerful, resonant, and ultimately satisfying end to this very fine novel. Mike Leonard September 05.