There’s a scene in Edward J. Delaney’s novella “House of Sully” that hits particularly close to home for me.
The Sullivans, an Irish Catholic family from St. Ann’s Parish in Dorchester, are sitting around the kitchen table. Their conversation straddles the fine line between argument and banter. At first, the kids are pecking away at the father’s failure to secure more than a single window-unit air conditioner to help fend off the heat of the summer of 1968. But the verbal sparring quickly moves on to broader disputes and alliances shift. The sister turns her ire toward her older brother.
“You’re just mad because I’m a teenager now, too,” she says. “You’re not so special anymore.”
“When was I special?” the boy wonders aloud.
His father pounces. “Look,” Mr. Sullivan says, “neither of you are special.” Then he tries to pin the air conditioner situation on his son’s inability to hold a summer job.
The boy huffs: “Oh, so now it’s my fault?”
“‘Yes!’ they all said, as a chorus.”
Though I grew up one parish over and a few decades later, this whole scene is familiar to me. I’ve sat around that table and engaged in that kind of affectionately biting repartee with my own family. I’ve endured those hot, triple-decker summers, huddling around a single window-unit AC for as long as I could. I know these characters. I understand where they’re coming from, and it seems Delaney does, too.
Verisimilitude has always been a hallmark of his work, whether he’s writing about Lowell millworkers as in 2004’s “Warp & Weft,” or the Providence fishermen of 2018’s “Follow the Sun.” His attention to the subtleties of the communities he portrays demonstrates not just familiarity but also respect. There are no cheap archetypes or easy stereotypes in Delaney’s writing. Just real people, acting and talking the way real people do.
His latest book, “The Big Impossible,” collects several shorter works that showcase his keen eye for detail and skill in crafting naturalistic dialogue. Though brief, these stories have great depth, and that depth allows them to resonate with outsized strength and beauty beyond their modest dimensions. While most stick close to the Fall River native’s usual stomping grounds, Delaney does use the titular novella to venture into new territory.
But first, “House of Sully.” Like America, the Sullivan family is struggling to cope with the spirit of ‘68. In the background, Bobby Kennedy is killed and Jackie Kennedy becomes Jackie Onassis (both are considered great tragedies). On the horizon, the uncertain prospect of a Dot High integrated by busing weighs on the 15-year-old narrator. At the front door, a blockbusting real estate broker stokes fears of coming racial tension. Inside the house, the family squabbles over the mysterious (perhaps intentional) disappearance of a controversial pair of bellbottom pants. “Change is fashionable,” laments Mr. Sullivan.
For the kids, the prospect of change suggests that things could be better, that they could rise above their circumstances. “Dorchester was not meant to be our destiny,” the narrator reflects. “We were meant, we thought, for better things.” But for the older generation, change is a threat, and the house stands as a bulwark against the vagaries of life — even if it is a little disappointing. “We’re here, in this house,” says Mrs. Sullivan. “For all its creaks and drafts, it’s the life we have, I suppose.” Things could be worse, you know.
The book’s other novella, “The Big Impossible,” is a beautiful, episodic story about a drifter wandering across the American West. Here, Delaney’s lyrical, painterly prose recalls Cormac McCarthy’s more romantic works — think “All the Pretty Horses” or “Suttree.”
The narrator is running from something, but we don’t know what. “I’d thrown everything away except the cash into the Platte River, at Grand Island, Nebraska. All the days I’d traveled, that wallet had stayed a lump of recollection I could not abide… I’d long since become excommunicated from what I once lived.” When he does finally settle down and find some peace with a good woman and her young granddaughter, a terrible accident tests his resolve.
Though the story is set about as far away as you can get from Delaney’s New England roots, his stories are so finely crafted that he’s able to convince you not only that he’s been there and seen these things, but that you have as well.
Ultimately, where the stories are set matters little. Whether we’re on the narrow streets of Dorchester or traveling the wide-open expanses of the Great Plains, there’s a shared emotional terrain that we all occupy. Delaney knows that terrain. It’s where all of his stories ultimately reside. That’s how he can make a place I’ve never been seem just as real and vivid to me as the neighborhood I grew up in.