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Book Review: ‘Mercy Street,’ by Jennifer Haigh


Haigh gets the details of both rural and urban poverty exactly right. The single-wide trailer Claudia grows up in is basically a shipping container, sweltering in the summer and freezing in the winter. Its wall-to-wall shag carpeting has “pile so long and dense that it seemed to suck in whatever landed on it. Spilled milk, puzzle pieces, Smarties. Cat food, thumbtacks, melting Popsicles, Lego blocks.” And the homes of people like the Birches are only one manifestation of their poverty. Their processed food diets make diabetes a rite of passage into adulthood. Their TVs are never not on. Nor is urban poverty much better. Tim Flynn, Claudia’s weed dealer, whom she recognizes as “her kind,” lives in a “three-decker wrapped in grubby aluminum siding … cheap workmen’s housing, 100 years old and built to last 50.”

And then there’s religion. Because Boston is, as Claudia remarks, “the most Catholic city in America,” it’s no surprise that many of the protesters outside Mercy Street are Catholics who see abortion as a mortal sin. For tragically lonely Anthony, though, it’s less about church doctrine than community. Brain-damaged by a falling beam on a construction site, Anthony now finds it difficult to think even simple thoughts straight through to conclusion. In his troubled mind, they swirl and collide and repeat on a loop. His only relief comes from attending daily Mass at failing St. Dymphna’s Church and smoking weed, both of which calm his fevered brain. If asked, he’d probably say he was opposed to abortion, but his larger worry is losing the church itself because of “the thing with the priests.” If St. Dymphna’s were to close, Anthony’s situation (he lives in the basement of his mother’s house) would be that much worse.

The novel’s scariest and most fascinating character is Victor, whose virulent misogyny seems almost innate. It really kicks in after he returns from Vietnam and falls in with Barb Vance, a girl he’s clearly no match for. Learning that she’s pregnant, she purposely goads him into a drunken domestic quarrel at the beginning of a long holiday weekend, then calls the cops and has him arrested. By the time he gets out of jail she’s had the abortion she knows he never would’ve agreed to.

From this point on, Victor’s rage against women plays at full volume, though we begin to suspect that his anger is a coping mechanism that allows him to ignore another truth he’d rather not contemplate — that women in general, not just Barb, see him coming and don’t like what they see. Even those who might want a baby are unlikely to want his.

His other coping mechanism (if you’re Victor you need at least two) is political ideology. Despite his becoming an anti-abortion crusader, abortion isn’t, for him, a religious or moral issue. Victor doesn’t think of women as women, but rather as “females” who have been put on this earth for one reason: to have babies. Though he couldn’t be more different temperamentally from sweet, gentle Anthony, the two men have one thing in common. Both are profoundly nostalgic, Anthony for a Catholic Church he was too young to experience, with comforting indulgences and scapular medals and Latin Masses, and Victor for an America he’s barely old enough to remember — the one before Vietnam, the sexual revolution and the women’s movement, where white men were clearly in charge.

Now a white supremacist, Victor is particularly angry at white women for allowing themselves to be “outbred,” four to one, by their brown- and black-skinned sisters. 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 the billboard optometrist Dr. T. J. Eckleburg in “The Great Gatsby.”) Under Straight’s guidance, Victor’s misogyny evolves into a full-blown antigovernment ideology to the point where he’s stockpiling weapons for the day when white America finally wakes up. It’s more than a little ironic, then, that Anthony’s problem is his difficulty stringing thoughts together to arrive at a coherent philosophy, while Victor’s problem is that he can do just that. Sadly, the common thread between the novel’s important male characters is how profoundly trapped and isolated each has become.

At this point in a rave review, critics will sometimes introduce a quibble to prove that they’re tough-minded and serious and not easily gobsmacked, so I’ll offer here that some readers may be disappointed that so many of the characters in “Mercy Street” get precisely what’s coming to them. They may suspect authorial — what? interference? artifice? — at work. But I’d argue the opposite: that it’s the characters themselves who have been working overtime, their entire lives, to arrive where they land. Haigh isn’t manipulating them, just paying close attention to their choices, large and small. That’s not artifice, it’s art. And I was gobsmacked.


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