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'Ask Again, Yes' Is A Profound Yet Unpretentious Family Drama

Jun 25, 2019
Originally published on June 26, 2019 11:30 am

Mary Beth Keane's new novel is called Ask Again, Yes.

What's it called again?

That's what everyone I've raved to about this book has said to me a couple of minutes after I've told them the title. It's one of those delicate titles that instantly goes poof! into the air; but that's the only strike there is against Keane's novel which is, otherwise, one of the most unpretentiously profound books I've read in a long time.

Ask Again, Yes opens up in 1973 in New York City. Books about the dilapidated New York of the '70s and '80s have been having "a moment" ever since Patti Smith's memoir, Just Kids, was published in 2010 and, though Keane's novel, which takes place far away from Smith's punk hangouts, goes on to span 40 years, its opening scene of a city gone haywire sets the emotional mood for the story that follows.

Two rookie cops, an Irish immigrant named Francis Gleeson and his partner, Brian Stanhope, are on foot patrol in the Bronx when they answer a call about an armed robbery in progress at a nearby bodega. When they arrive they find the owner lying dead in a pool of blood. Francis, who's a sensitive young guy, is overwhelmed for a minute by the career he's pretty much just fallen into. He reflects that:

"There was no predicting where life would go. There was no real way for a person to try something out, [just] see if he liked it — the words he'd chosen when he told his uncle ... that he'd gotten into the police academy — because you try it and try it and try it a little longer and next thing it's who you are. One minute he'd been standing in a bog on the other side of the Atlantic and the next thing he knew he was a cop. In America. In the worst neighborhood of the best known city in the world.

Mary Beth Keane's previous books include The Walking People and Fever.
Nna Subin / Scribner

Francis' meditation on how a series of happenstances solidify into a life is what Keane so beautifully dramatizes in Ask Again, Yes. Both young cops get married and within a few years wind up living next door to each other in a suburb just north of the city. Two of their kids become close, but the couples don't, mostly because Brian's wife, a nurse named Anne, is "off," in a way nobody has the therapeutic language at that time to grasp. Then, about 20 years into the story, a horrible incident takes place. And the world that solidified by happenstance for Francis and all the other characters here, blows apart in the same way.

By switching perspective in every chapter, so that the narrative moves forward through the voice and world view of almost every member of the two families here, Keane develops her characters far beyond glib stereotypes. There's Francis, his shrewd Italian-Polish wife, Lena, and Kate, the youngest of their three daughters, who's been joined at the hip since childhood with Peter, the Stanhope's neglected son.

And then there's Anne, living with mental illness: In a jittery and terrifying scene that weds the mundane to the mad, we enter into Anne's mind on New Year's Eve 1990, when she makes a trip to the local supermarket deli counter, takes her number, waits, and, then, with mounting rage, comes to believe that everyone else in the supermarket is in cahoots to prevent her from buying her cold cuts.

Though Keane is younger than most of her characters, she writes with deep familiarity and precision about the lives of this particular generation of blue-collar Catholic New Yorkers. (And by the way, this was the geography, concrete and cultural, that I was born into, so I know whereof I speak.) In particular, Keane "gets" the power of silence that was, back then, the universal antidote for dealing with all manner of so-called "embarrassing" personal problems, from mental illness to alcoholism.

As a writer, Keane reminds me a lot of Ann Patchett: Both have the magical ability to seem to be telling "only" a closely-observed domestic tale that transforms into something else deep and, yes, universal. In Keane's case, that "something else" is a story about forgiveness and acceptance — qualities that sound gooey, but are so hard to achieve in life.

And, in the final moments of this modestly magnificent novel, even that blah title of Ask Again, Yes is ingeniously redeemed.

Copyright 2019 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Mary Beth Keane is an under-the-radar novelist who's been awarded a Guggenheim and, a few years ago, was named one of the National Book Foundation's 5 Under 35 novelists to look out for. Our book critic Maureen Corrigan recommends that you look out for Keane's latest novel. Here's her review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Mary Beth Keane's new novel is called "Ask Again, Yes." What's it called again? That's what everyone I've raved to about this book has said to me a couple of minutes after I've told them the title. It's one of those delicate titles that instantly goes poof into the air. But that's the only strike there is against Keane's novel, which is otherwise one of the most unpretentiously profound books I've read in a long time.

"Ask Again, Yes" opens up in 1973 in New York City. Books about the dilapidated New York of the '70s and '80s had been having a moment ever since Patti Smith's memoir "Just Kids" was published in 2010. And though Keane's novel, which takes place far away from Smith's punk hangouts, goes on to span 40 years, its opening scene of a city gone haywire sets the emotional mood for the story that follows. Two rookie cops, an Irish immigrant named Francis Gleason, and his partner, Brian Stanhope, are on foot patrol in the Bronx when they answer a call about an armed robbery in progress at a nearby bodega. When they arrive, they find the owner lying dead in a pool of blood.

Francis, who's a sensitive, young guy, is overwhelmed for a minute by the career he's pretty much just fallen into. He reflects that (reading) there was no predicting where life would go. There was no real way for a person to try something out, just see if he liked it - the words he'd chosen when he told his uncle that he'd gotten into the police academy - because you try it and try it and try it a little longer, and the next thing - it's who you are. One minute he'd been standing in a bog on the other side of the Atlantic. And the next thing he knew, he was a cop in America in the worst neighborhood of the best-known city in the world.

Francis' meditation on how a series of happenstances solidify into a life is what Keane so beautifully dramatizes in "Ask Again, Yes." Both young cops get married and, within a few years, wind up living next door to each other in a suburb just north of the city. Two of their kids become close, but the couples don't, mostly because Brian's wife, a nurse named Anne, is off in a way nobody has the therapeutic language at that time to grasp. Then about 20 years into the story, a horrible incident takes place. And the world that's solidified by happenstance for Francis and all the other characters here blows apart in the same way.

By switching perspective in every chapter so that the narrative moves forward through the voice and worldview of almost every member of the two families here, Keane develops her characters far beyond glib stereotypes. There's Francis, his shrewd Italian-Polish wife Lena and Kate, the youngest of their three daughters, who's been joined at the hip since childhood with Peter, the Stanhopes' neglected son.

And then there's the mentally ill Anne. In a jittery scene that weds the mundane to the mad, we enter into Anne's mind on New Year's Eve 1990, when she makes a trip to the local supermarket deli counter, takes her number, waits, and then with mounting rage, comes to believe that everyone else in the supermarket is in cahoots to prevent her from buying her cold cuts. It's nuts, and it's terrifying.

Though Keane is younger than most of her characters, she writes with deep familiarity and precision about the lives of this particular generation of blue-collar Catholic New Yorkers. And by the way, this was the geography, concrete and cultural, that I was born into, so I know whereof I speak. In particular, Keane gets the power of silence that was, back then, the universal antidote for dealing with all manner of so-called embarrassing personal problems, from mental illness to alcoholism.

As a writer, Keane reminds me a lot of Ann Patchett. Both have the magical ability to seem to be telling only a closely observed domestic tale that transforms into something else deep and, yes, universal. In Keane's case, that something else is a story about forgiveness and acceptance - qualities that sound gooey but are so hard to achieve in life. And in the final moments of this modestly magnificent novel, even that blah title of "Ask Again, Yes" is ingeniously redeemed.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Ask Again, Yes" by Mary Beth Keane. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guests will be Dr. Paul Volberding and nurse Cliff Morrison. We'll talk about treating AIDS patients at San Francisco General Hospital in the early 1980s, before it was understood what AIDS was or how it was spread. The ward they started became a model for other AIDS units across the country and is the subject of the new documentary "Ward B" (ph). I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF AARON GOLDBERG'S "POINCIANA")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF AARON GOLDBERG'S "POINCIANA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.