Sept 29, 2006
Sept. 29, 2006 - If you lived anywhere near Boston six years ago, there was a grim little memoir, peppered with hard-won humor, called "All Souls" that was inescapable: you saw it in shop windows, in the hands of passengers on the bus, on laps on the "T," which the author and his pals from the projects used to hop turnstiles to ride. "All Souls" was the first-person testimony of Michael Patrick MacDonald, survivor of the Old Colony development in the Irish enclave of South Boston (Southie, as it’s known)—one of the Boston Housing Authority's largest, poorest and whitest projects.
In that book (265,000 copies sold, 34 weeks on The Boston Globe's best-seller list), we met MacDonald and his family: matriarch Helen MacDonald King and her 11 offspring, four of whom would be dead by book's end, with another rendered a vegetable by a drug-addled rooftop fall, which was possibly accidental but possibly not. We learn the story of a man who understands poverty because he has known it and is blessed with an ability to bear witness in plainspoken prose. As only an insider can, he turned the spotlight on a community ruined by organized crime, controlled by drugs and ruled by silence.
This week the sequel to "All Souls" lands in bookstores. If possible, "Easter Rising" (Houghton Mifflin) is a more personal story—detailing MacDonald's escape from Southie's death grip and, eventually, his cautious return. "This is my 'not another Southie' book," he says sitting on a barstool in his adoptive Brooklyn neighborhood. "I was a little traumatized by the 'All Souls' thing because it was so out there in the news and so controversial" for dealing frankly with class and crime, he explains. "Easter Rising" is an answer to all those teachers and community leaders and kids who have asked him in the intervening years: how did you get out alive?
The short answer? He was lucky. Over a plate of pub fare (Buffalo chicken fingers, tepid calamari and soda water—no booze on book tours) MacDonald, 40, gives the longer version, which comprises the bulk of "Easter Rising." The book begins steeped in summertime nostalgia—MacDonald tags along with his siblings, sneaking subway rides and pulling pranks. But things take a swift downward turn when Davey, MacDonald's charismatic bipolar older brother, commits suicide by jumping off one of Old Colony's roofs. MacDonald begins to withdraw from the tight-knit Southie community. On a clandestine jaunt into downtown Boston—a few stops and a world away from the projects—he is taken by the unconventional appearance of a young punk rocker. It's 1979 and a 13-year-old MacDonald has begun to realize there is more to life than Irish Southie and its preppie pop-music conformity. So, naturally, he shoplifts his first Sex Pistols record.
You see where this is going. "I'd often heard adults and commentators on TV saying how music like this could destroy kids' lives," he writes upon hearing "Never Mind the Bollocks" for the first time. "For once I thought they might be right. But to me that didn't feel like a bad thing." Escaping and rebelling through rock and roll is as old as James Dean, of course. But the problem with that particular rebel was that he didn't have a cause. MacDonald did.
At first it's just to flee Southie's oppressive insularity. On nocturnal sojourns, an insomniac MacDonald stumbles upon a burgeoning scene, a little slice of unfolding rock history. Escaping the increasingly corrosive violence of his 'hood, he comes to embrace the cathartic violence of punk—he sneaks into shows by the Clash, the Sex Pistols, the Slits, Mission of Burma, Gang of Four, the Cramps, the Ramones, the Specials, the Buzzcocks—all in their prime. Reminiscing in Brooklyn more than 20 years later, MacDonald waggles a chicken tender like it’s an extension of his finger: "So many people assume with these musical subcultures that it's about finding a place where you belong. But for me it was about finding a place where I didn't have to belong." It was the first time in his life that it was OK to be weird. And what's weirder than having young siblings who keep dieing?
His sister Kathy falls off a roof under mysterious circumstances in 1981. She goes into a coma, hovering between life and death for months, ultimately emerging with brain damage. But the worst is yet to come: three years later, one of MacDonald's older brothers is killed in a botched bank heist, and eight months after that another is found dead, hung in his jail cell. When MacDonald deigns to go to school during this period, a teacher tells him to pull himself up by his bootstraps. "Then he carried on about hard work and struggle," he writes. "I was confused, because the last few months had felt like nothing but hard work and struggle."
Twenty-five years later he is no longer confused, just angry. MacDonald, who after years working as a community organizer looks far more like a cop than a punk rocker, says that "By focusing on making kids 'pull themselves up by their bootstraps,' we adults get to sidestep the social-justice issues that are involved here. We don't have to deal with the fact that these kids are growing up in a messed-up world. I'm talking across class—from Southie to Columbine." MacDonald has tried to sidestep nothing. Before writing "All Souls," he helped start Boston's gun-buyback program and toured the country counseling families like his.
Alternately funny and heartbreaking, "Easter Rising" progresses in swift, conversational style. MacDonald copes the way all of Southie copes—by repressing. Eventually this takes a physical toll and he begins exhibiting classic symptoms of posttraumatic-stress disorder. He becomes a hypochondriac; he seeks succor in alcohol and speed. He runs from Southie, staying stretches at a time in Boston and then even further to New York. Eventually he scrapes enough money together to get to Europe. And with a bribe from his grandfather, he begrudgingly discovers his family's native Ireland where MacDonald receives a crash course in colonialization and class warfare that allows him to see Southie, and himself, through a new prism.
As a coming-of-age story, "Easter Rising" may not break new ground, but MacDonald is a compelling storyteller, cut from the same cloth as "Angela's Ashes" author Frank McCourt. His next book will likely be another "bottom-up history," he says, the fictionalized story of his Irish great-grandmother, who prepared bodies for wakes in a time of uprising and disease when there was much to keep her busy. But first he has to finish the screenplay for "All Souls," which will be directed by Ron Shelton ("Bull Durham"). "There's always more therapy to do; always more writing to do," he says, sounding very much like someone whose ancient trauma remains a constant companion. "It's catharsis. You go into the fire and you feel better when you come out of it."