Bethesda novelist Alice McDermott is on the hunt for “sparkly loaded things,” little golden question marks with wings that hover tantalizingly before her mind’s eye.
There’s only one sure way to pin them down, by trapping them beneath her pen and then letting the crazy energy of everything the author doesn’t understand pull her hand across the page.
One of these mysterious little juggernauts is at the heart of “Absolution,” McDermott’s ninth and possibly finest novel, which is set among the community of military wives in 1963 Saigon — two years before the U.S. first sent combat troops to Vietnam.
In this case, the unanswered question that gripped the 70-year-old author’s imagination is how that all-American doll, Barbie, came to be wearing a white áo dài, the Vietnamese national dress.
In 2019, McDermott was chatting at a party with one of those former military wives. The woman mentioned that while she and her husband were in Vietnam in the early 1960s, her friends sold native outfits for Barbie dolls.
That sparked a memory from McDermott’s childhood of being sent with her doll on a play date to New York’s Long Island in the early 1960s. The other child’s Barbie was wearing an áo dài that young Alice coveted.
“How in the world did that little outfit that was mentioned by this woman in 2019 at a cocktail party inside the Beltway end up on Long Island in this girl’s Barbie collection?” the author wondered.
“So, I thought, ‘Well, I’m just going to have to make up an origin story.’”
But “Absolution” is about much more than doll clothes. Like all of McDermott’s novels, it wrestles with intractable moral questions of good and evil, but framed as intimate human stories. Along with Marilynne Robinson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the “Gilead” series of novels, McDermott is one of the few contemporary fiction writers to write deeply and seriously about religious faith.
Though their biographies are different (Robinson is a Calvinist Protestant, and her novels are set in Iowa), in the novels of both authors, their characters’ spiritual beliefs are the constant hum of background noise against which the plot is set. Like swimmers battling an undertow, the characters are pulled between the demands of their consciences and the compromises of modern life.
“Absolution” tells the story of Tricia, an Irish Catholic girl from Yonkers who is sent to Vietnam with her engineer husband, Peter in 1963. The couple is immediately drawn into the American expatriate world of poolside parties and charity fundraisers and charming thank-you notes written on powder blue stationary.
At one of these parties, Tricia meets Charlene, a force of nature, who quickly draws the younger and more naive woman into her orbit. Charlene concocts a plan to manufacture and sell áo dàis for the newly-popular Barbie dolls to raise money to buy toys for hospitalized Vietnamese children suffering from war injuries. Later the women set about tailoring custom clothing for the residents of a leper colony.
Among other things, “Absolution” examines the self-serving motivations of charitable impulses — but also whether there might not be a real benefit derived from applying Band-Aids to the world’s unconquerable sorrow and pain. The book examines the negative consequences that can result from an excess of moral certitude, but also poses the opposite question, whether an over-abundance of empathy for others can interfere with forward movement.
“If you have too much moral uncertainty about what it means to do good, then you don’t do anything,” McDermott said. “You can get paralyzed and end up taking no action whatsoever.”
These are precisely the kind of sparkly, loaded questions that tend to catch the eyes of prize judges; four of McDermott’s previous novels were semifinalists or finalists for The National Book Award or the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, while a fifth, “Charming Billy” picked up both the National Book Award and the American Book Award in 1988.
In addition to her novels, McDermott was a mainstay of The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University for nearly a quarter of a century, from 1996 until she retired in 2019.
She frequently is described as an Irish Catholic writer; many of McDermott’s stories feature the nuns and gas station attendants and shoe store salesmen and lapsed seminarians who were her neighbors in her hometown of New York.
At first glance, “Absolution’s” setting in Vietnam seems a departure from the pattern. But the novel takes place during a period when two Roman Catholic leaders were making global headlines: the United States’ President John F. Kennedy and Vietnam’s controversial dictator, Ngo Dinh Diem.
“It was a moment in time when the CIA really was referred to in a tongue-in-cheek way as the ‘Catholic Intelligence Agency,’” McDermott said.
“Bill Donovan started the CIA, and they were recruiting Catholics as agents, because the Vatican’s injunction to defeat Communism was very serious. In some ways I don’t know if I could have told this story without Irish Catholicism,” she said.
Though McDermott originally hoped to visit Saigon while researching “Absolution,” her travel plans were disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Eventually, she realized that the Vietnam she was looking for, the era of 1960s Saigon, no longer existed.
Instead, she read everything she could find about the war-torn Asian nation: novels, histories, journalism. Particularly influential was Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American,” a spot-on critique written in 1955 of America’s dangerous and growing involvement in Vietnam.
“He was so prescient,” McDermott said.
“He saw the catastrophe that was about to happen. But one thing that struck me was that all the women in his book were so uninteresting. At one point in ‘The Quiet American,’ the journalist character is in a milk bar. He sees two young American women finishing their ice cream, and he thinks about how clean and uncomplicated they look.”
“I thought, ‘No, they aren’t uncomplicated. Young American women working in Saigon in the 1950s were actually really interesting people. Why didn’t he talk to them?’”
“Absolution” is McDermott’s response.
Charlene, complicated and ethically ambiguous, is arguably among the great characters of contemporary literature. It is she who comes up with a functional working definition of virtue: Leading a moral life means refusing to look away from suffering.
The author peoples “Absolution” with two guardian angel characters who protect the world’s most vulnerable inhabitants, and a devil who attempts to lure humans into mortal sin by draining away their desire to do good.
McDermott imagines the Prince of Darkness as a physician who graphically describes the horror of a slaughter field he stumbles across — a story that leaves his listeners, as she put it, “completely devoid of hope in his presence.”
“His message,” McDermott said, “is ‘Be smart, be reasonable. The innocents are going to suffer. Get over it. Take care of your own families.’”
At one point in the novel, the devil and a guardian angel drive off together in a jeep. The author notes that it is tempting — though ultimately impossible — to imagine what they would have had to say to one another.
“Absolution” was published Oct. 31 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 336 pages, $28.