Rick, an adolescent, is determined to see his girlfriend Sheryl, whose mother is vigorously keeping the two apart. This is because, unbeknown to Rick, Sheryl is pregnant and was sent out of state. The boyfriend and his unruly buddies drive to the girl’s house and, owing to their aggressiveness, get involved in a physical conflict with the men of the neighborhood. This early ’60s incident is the axis for everything that takes place in the novel, That Night (1987), by Alice McDermott.
Such a book might seem like a yawner—material so familiar—but it isn’t. For one thing, it is short; for another, the characterization is engagingly strong; for another, the structure is interesting. Style? It’s nothing exceptional but it’s eminently effective. Closer to Fitzgerald than to Hemingway or Faulkner, thank goodness.
Themes in That Night include the insufficiency of love (for Rick and Sheryl, for Rick’s mother and father) and when there is trauma for the young. It reveals for us a person’s “blind, insistent longing”—Sheryl, forever apart from Rick, “wants to love someone else”—whether love is insufficient or not.