Excerpt from The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Ninth Hour

A Novel

by Alice McDermott

The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott X
The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2017, 256 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2018, 256 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Butts
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Print Excerpt


Two weeks ago they had discharged him for unreliability and insubordination. Inside the shell of his flesh, the man he was—not the blushing, humiliated boy who stood ham-handed before them—simply shook off the blow and turned away, indifferent, free. But Annie wept when he told her, and then said angrily, through her tears, that there was a baby coming, knowing even as she said it that to break the news to him in this way was to condemn the child to a life of trouble.

He took the tea towels she had left to dry on the sink, wound them into ropes, and placed them along the sill of the kitchen window.

He carried the length of rubber tubing through the living room and into the bedroom. He slipped off his shoes, put the tube to his mouth, as if to pull smoke. He had seen this in a picture book back home: a fat sultan on a red pillow doing much the same. He sat on the edge of the bed. He bowed his head and prayed: Now and at the hour of our death. He lay back on the bed. The room had gotten dimmer still. Hour of our. Our hour. At home, his mother, the picture book spread out on her wide lap, would reach behind him to turn the clock face to the wall.

Within this very hour he would put his head on her shoulder once again. Or would he? There were moments when his faith fell out from under him like a trapdoor. He stood up. Found his nightshirt underneath his pillow and twisted it, too. Then placed it along the edge of the one window, again pushing the material into the narrow crevice where the frame met the sill, knowing all the while that the gesture was both ineffectual and unnecessary.

Down in the street, there was a good deal of movement—women mostly, because the shops were open late and the office workers had not yet begun to file home. Dark coats and hats. A baby buggy or two, the wheels turning up a pale spray. He watched two nuns in black cloaks and white wimples, their heads bent together, skim over the gray sidewalk. He watched until they were gone, his cheek now pressed to the cool window glass. When he turned back into the room, the light had failed in every corner and he had to put out his hand as he walked around the pale bed, back to his own side.

He stretched out once again. Playfully lifted the hose to one eye, as if he would see along its length the black corridor of a subway tunnel, lit gold at the farthest end by the station ahead. Then he placed the hose in his mouth and breathed deeply once more. He felt the nausea, the sudden vertigo, he had been expecting all along but had forgotten he was expecting. He closed his eyes and swallowed. Outside, a mother called to a child. There was the slow clopping of a horse-drawn cart. The feathered sound of wheels turning in street water. Something dropped to the floor in the apartment just above him—a sewing basket, perhaps—there was a thud and then a scratchy chorus of wooden spools spinning. Or maybe it was coins, spilled from a fallen purse.

* * *

AT SIX, the streetlamps against the wet dark gave a polish to the air. There was the polish of lamplight, too, on streetcar tracks and windowpanes and across the gleaming surface of the scattered black puddles in the street. Reflection of lamplight as well on the rump of the remaining fire truck and on the pale faces of the gathered crowd, with an extra gold sparkle and glint on anyone among them who wore glasses. Sister St. Saviour, for instance, a Little Nursing Sister of the Sick Poor, who had spent the afternoon in the vestibule of the Woolworth's at Borough Hall, her alms basket in her lap. She was now on her way back to the convent, her bladder full, her ankles swollen, her round glasses turned toward the lamplight and the terrible scent of doused fire on the winter air.

The pouch with the money she had collected today was tied to her belt; the small basket she used was tucked under her cloak and under her arm. The house where the fire had been looked startled: the windows of all four floors were wide open, shade cords and thin curtains flailing in the cold air. Although the rest of the building was dark, the vestibule at the top of the stone stoop was weirdly lit, crowded with policemen and firemen carrying lamps. The front door was open, as, it appeared, was the door to the apartment on the parlor floor. Sister St. Saviour wanted only to walk on, to get to her own convent, her own room, her own toilet—her fingers were cold and her ankles swollen and her thin basket was crushed awkwardly under her arm—but still she brushed through the crowd and climbed the steps. There was a limp fire hose running along the shadowy base of the stone banister. Two of the officers in the hallway, turning to see her, tipped their hats and then put out their hands as if she had been summoned. "Sister," one of them said. He was flushed and perspiring, and even in the dull light, she could see that the cuffs of his jacket were singed. "Right in here."

Excerpted from The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott. Copyright © 2017 by Alice McDermott. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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