Finalist for the Balcones Fiction Prize
An Inescapable Inheritance
Pieces brings to life a large Irish-American family struggling with the aftershocks of alcoholism and domestic violence through three generations. The Donnegans’ childhood demons morph in unexpected ways, and each sibling must strike his own bargain. For some, the prize is an unlikely redemption; for others, a familiar curse brings new pain.
As they grow into adulthood, the Donnegans’ apparent conformity to middle-class mores masks a reckless irreverence that springs from first-hand knowledge of the chaos below the surface of human interaction. The Donnegans are refugees in disguise, fearing normalcy is out of reach, but each time they’re forced to come to terms with what their actions have cost them, their choices – often bizarre, yet darkly victorious – speak to the human spirit when it’s unwilling to give up hope.
Mary Ann McGuigan’s novel Pieces, is a beautifully rendered portrait of a family, one that moves from voice to voice and generation to generation, bearing witness to strength and vulnerability, distance and connection. The deepest sources of family pain are explored here, and the ways in which damage can keep seeping through the years. The writing is elegant and assured, the tone moving and elegiac. Brava.
By the time you finish Pieces, you’ll feel like you’re one of the family. To say that McGuigan is an extraordinarily gifted writer is an understatement, like saying Mount Everest would make a pretty good speed bump. This is a book no lover of fiction should miss.
Told with a sure voice and an appreciation of the small graces that can come to us in our darkest times, these stories ask us to consider what it means to forgive, what it means to accept, what it means to be a family.
McGuigan knows how to break your heart. In this deftly woven story collection, she poignantly illuminates the shadowy fissures of family loneliness, longing, and fear, and the unexpected interstices of love.
[Pieces] taps into the raw, emotional drama and powerful character investigation that will leave the reader moved and gasping for air. The quality storytelling and palpable tension will keep the reader connected to the book even during breaks, while the brutally honest portrayal of how alcoholism and abuse stay with a family long after those outbursts will almost necessitate said breaks. McGuigan's novel is both dizzying and unforgettable; certain to make an impact on its readers.
Read An Excerpt From Pieces
To Express How Much
On Monday night, Kevin decides to talk to his father himself. He finds him in the garage, working on the car. Kevin stands around, aimless, spinning the screwdrivers that hang in their neat little niches.
“What’s up with you?” his father says. He’s bent over the engine, his head deep into its parts.
“Nothing,” Kevin says.
“Has to be something,” Liam says, his voice muffled beneath the raised hood.
Kevin waits until his father finishes tightening something. “Some friends of mine are coming over tomorrow night.” He takes a few steps toward his father, smells the mixture of grease and gasoline that shrouds him whenever he tends to the car. These smells have always comforted him. They mean his father is sober, predictable.
“We have a group,” he says, coming closer, leaning against the Buick’s passenger side.
“What do you mean a group?”
“A writer’s group.”
“We read stuff to each other, stuff we’ve written, and talk about it.”
“What kind of stuff?” He’s standing upright now, fighting open some stubborn piece of motor with a grimy cloth.
“Different things. Essays, poems, some stories.”
“You still writin’ that stuff?”
“Some.” When Kevin doesn’t say any more, Liam goes back into the engine, curses softly at its insides. “So it’s my turn tomorrow night,” Kevin says, loud enough to be heard beneath the hood. “To meet here.”
Liam straightens up, eyes squinting, as if what he wants to see is too far away. “So how come you’re telling me? Is Mom against this or something?”
“No.” Kevin shrugs. “I just thought you’d want to know.”
“Okay, so I know. Now are you gonna tell me what this is really about?”
Kevin rolls his eyes and slouches toward the door to the house. He’s almost back inside before he can make himself say it.
“Dad.” Liam doesn’t hear him. He’s bent over the engine again. “Dad.”
“Yeah. What?” His father straightens up, slaps his greasy rag down onto the Buick’s fender.
“I don’t want them to see you and Mom fighting.”
Liam’s shoulders slouch and he looks down, as if he’s been accused, exposed. Kevin waits for him to answer. He doesn’t and Kevin turns toward the door again, but his father calls after him.
“Kevin, gimme a break,” Liam says. “Who are these friends anyway? You think your friends’ folks don’t have disagreements?”
“Disagreements.” The word comes out with a mocking chuckle.
“That’s right, disagreements,” Liam says. His voice is harsher, louder, and the raised hood doesn’t muffle it.
“Yeah, they disagree. They just don’t bust up the furniture.”
Liam shakes his head slowly, as if there’s been some grand misunderstanding. The silence is pretty much what Kevin expected. It has taken him so long, so many years, to talk about this with his father, to name it. It isn’t his father’s anger that stopped him; he never gets seriously angry unless he’s drunk. Kevin didn’t want to be the one to point out the thing that no one in the house wants to see.
It’s ironic, he thinks, how he and his mother protect his father from himself, keep him from having to face who he is and what he does to them. But that’s the drill. That’s why they pretend there’s nothing wrong.
“The lamp was an accident. You know that,” Liam says, referring to the last time he came home drunk and crazed, just a few nights ago. He leans heavily on one arm, speaks into the engine, not looking at his son.
“Come on, Dad,” Kevin says. He doesn’t mention the countless other lamps—or the tables and vases and even the toppled Christmas tree one year. But their home isn’t just a war zone; it’s a prison. They can’t let anyone in and they never really get out, because the tension is inescapable, like a jailer stalking him everywhere he goes. He’s exhausted from it.
“It was just a lamp, for crissake,” Liam says. “What do you want from me?”
“My friends are going to be here tomorrow night. I want you to stay sober—for one night. That’s what I want.”
“Come over here,” Liam says, stepping away from the car. When Kevin reaches him, his father talks low, as if what he’s telling Kevin needs to be kept between them. “That don’t mean nothin’ when me and your mother fight. You understand? We’re okay. It’s nothin’ to worry about.”
“And don’t worry about your friends either. I’ll be home early. I’ll pick up some chips and we can nuke some popcorn. Think they’d like that?”
“Yeah, sure.” Kevin isn’t convinced, but he doesn’t have the energy to say any more.
Then he feels his father’s big hand on his arm. “That’s not a promise, Kevin. That’s a fact. Understand?”
Kevin doesn’t answer; he steps toward the door. “Hey,” Liam calls. “You think I don’t know how important this is, this group? You think I don’t know what a good writer you are?” He tosses the rag on the workbench, reaches into his back pocket for his wallet, steps toward his son. They’re small, awkward steps but he seems determined about something. He pulls a faded, frayed paper out of a secret place. “See this?” he says. “This is that composition you wrote for me for Father’s Day.” He opens it up, a single folded page, yellowing and precariously thin. The creases have worn some of the words away. “Jeez, it must have been seven years ago. You were only this high. I read this to your Uncle Pete and Uncle Conor. This was really something. It had Conor in tears.”
Kevin remembers how his hand trembled as he gave it to him, how his father laughed, called him Shakes for Shakespeare for weeks after. Kevin never knew he’d even read it a second time. “That thing?” Kevin laughs. The composition had been assigned to the whole sixth grade class: “Why I’m So Proud of My Dad.” He remembers everyone leaning over their papers, gripping their pencils. His paper sat there blank, barking at him like a hungry dog. The window near his desk was open and he could hear a lawn mower in the distance, someone calling David, sounding worried. But birds called to each other, dancing in and out of trees, oblivious to what might be wrong in the world.
Kevin knew what he would write. He’d stay with the safe stuff, talk about how his father worked hard and mowed the lawn and fixed the car. He’d make everything sound normal. They’d never know the difference. But every word he wrote shut out another one screaming to be heard. Each one separated him a little more from what he really felt, until the shame about his father became something apart from him, something he didn’t have to admit or even look at. Kevin was splitting—half lies, half real—and he knew that if he didn’t do something to stop it, the lies would take over. That night he wrote his first story about what it was really like to be his father’s son. Liam never saw that story. No one has. When Father’s Day came, Kevin gave him the one he’d been assigned. The truth of who he was remained hidden, but whole.
Kevin and his father don’t say much for a minute, and then, with great care, Liam puts the paper back into its place in the wallet.
“Don’t be worried,” he says. “Understand?”
“Okay,” Kevin says, but he is.