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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  • Published:
    Sep 2017, 256 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Butts

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These Short Dark Days

FEBRUARY 3 WAS A DARK AND DANK DAY altogether: cold spitting rain in the morning and a low, steel-gray sky the rest of the afternoon.

At four, Jim convinced his wife to go out to do her shopping before full darkness fell. He closed the door on her with a gentle wave. His hair was thinning and he was missing a canine on the right side, but he was nevertheless a handsome man who, at thirty-two, might still have passed for twenty. Heavy brows and deep-set, dark-lashed eyes that had been making women catch their breath since he was sixteen. Even if he had grown bald and toothless, as he seemed fated to do, the eyes would have served him long into old age.

His overcoat was on the hall tree beside the door. He lifted it and rolled it lengthwise against his thighs. Then he fitted it over the threshold, tucking the cloth of the sleeves and the hem as well as he could into the space beneath the door. Theirs was a railroad flat: kitchen in the back, dining room, living room, bedroom in the front. He needed only to push the heavy couch a few feet farther along the wall to block his wife's return. He stood on the seat to check that the glass transom above the door was tightly closed. Then he stepped down. He straightened the lace on the back of the couch and brushed away the shallow impression his foot had made on the horsehair cushion.

In the kitchen, he pressed his cheek to the cold enamel of the stove and slid his hand into the tight space between it and the yellow wall. He groped a bit. They kept a baited mousetrap back there, or had in the past, and it made him careful. He found the rubber hose that connected the oven to the gas tap and pulled at it as vigorously as he could, given the confined space. There was a satisfying pop, and a hiss that quickly faded. He straightened up with the hose in his hand. The kitchen window looked into the gray courtyard where, on better days, there would be lines of clothes baking in the sun, although the floor of the deep courtyard, even in the prettiest weather, was a junkyard and a jungle. There were rats and bedsprings and broken crates. A tangle of city-bred vegetation: a sickly tree, black vines, a long-abandoned attempt at a garden. From rag-and-bone man to wayward drunk, any voice that ever rose out of its depths was the voice of someone up to no good. Once, Annie, sitting on the windowsill with a clothespin in her mouth and a basket of wet linen at her feet, saw a man drag a small child through the muck and tie him to the rough pole that held the line. She watched the man take off his belt, and, with the first crack of it against the child's bare calves, she began to yell. She threw the clothespins at him, a potted ivy plant, and then the metal washbasin still filled with soapy water. Leaning halfway out the window herself, she threatened to call the police, the fire department, the Gerrity Society. The man, as if pursued only by a change in the weather, a sudden rain, glanced up briefly, shrugged, and then untied the sobbing child and dragged him away. "I know who you are," Annie cried. Although she didn't. She was an easy liar. She paced the street for an hour that afternoon, waiting for the man and the boy to reappear.

When Jim ran into the kitchen at the sound of her shouting, she was from head to waist out the window, with only one toe on the kitchen floor. He'd had to put his hands on her hips to ease her out of danger. Just one more of what had turned out to be too many days he hadn't gone in to work or had arrived too late for his shift.

His trouble was with time. Bad luck for a trainman, even on the BRT. His trouble was, he liked to refuse time. He delighted in refusing it. He would come to the end of a long night, to the inevitability of 5 a.m.—that boundary, that abrupt wall toward which all the night's pleasures ran (drink, talk, sleep, or Annie's warm flesh)—and while other men, poor sheep, gave in every morning, turned like lambs in the chute from the pleasures of sleep or drink or talk or love to the duties of the day, he had been aware since his childhood that with the easiest refusal, eyes shut, he could continue as he willed. I'm not going, he'd only have to murmur. I won't be constrained. Of course, it didn't always require refusing the whole day. Sometimes just the pleasure of being an hour or two late was enough to remind him that he, at least, was his own man, that the hours of his life—and what more precious commodity did he own?—belonged to himself alone.

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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