A Review of Kevin McEnroe’s novel, Our Town
Kevin Jack McEnroe’s 2015 novel, Our Town, is an impressive debut; it is beautifully written and heartfelt. It is also a page-turner, but not at all a potboiler. There is tremendous substance and heart underneath the beautiful prose. McEnroe knows how to spin an interesting yarn, but he also packs an emotional punch. The novel is a semi-biographical retelling of McEnroe’s maternal grandmother’s life, Joanna Moore. In the world of Our Town she is called Dorothy. The novel’s title is shared with the classic 1938 play by Thornton Wilder. This is not an accident: The play appears in the novel, when Dorothy is older and looking once more for work as an actress; she auditions, is cast, and falls in love with one of her co-stars. It is her salvation.
Dale, Dorothy’s first husband is loosely based on the actor of Love Story fame, Ryan O’Neal; Dale is one of Dorothy’s great loves (albeit a violent and traumatic one) as well as the father of her two children: Clover and Dylan. There is a very brutal scene in which Dale, jealous and enraged, slams his forehead into Dorothy’s face, breaking her nose and causing her tremendous pain and humiliation. This occurs in public at a party celebrating one of Dale’s films: Dorothy is dressed to the nines and enjoying herself and Dale cannot handle the competition. Dale is a womanizer, a druggie, a violent, jealous, and immature man. He is physically gorgeous (fit and suntanned) and very famous, but not much of an actor. He is a loving yet volatile father. His relationship with Clover is strained, but his bond with Dylan is much worse. They really have no connection at all to speak of, and grow to dislike each other immensely.
Clover, their daughter, becomes an actress, marries an athlete, gives birth to a son and struggles with her own addictions. She is very similar to Tatum O’Neal – McEnroe’s mother – in these respects. Dylan falls into drug addiction and alcoholism as well and fathers numerous children with a handful of women. He is similar to Moore and O’Neal’s real-life son, Griffin, though Dylan is not as developed as Clover. McEnroe’s real gift is writing female characters; he is exceptionally good at it.
One constant in Dorothy’s life is her love of cigarette smoking: she quits and starts up again many times, and it ultimately leads to the cancer that kills her in her early fifties. Dorothy is very loving but not an attentive mother; her loss of custody of Clover and Dylan only exacerbates the problems which caused her to lose them in the first place. She takes many pills and also hard drugs like heroin and cocaine at various points throughout her short life. She is a heavy drinker and gets arrested and jailed many times for driving while intoxicated, including one memorable occasion in which she is on her way to a Christmas party with her children, hosted by Dale at his posh Malibu beach house. She never makes it to the party.
Dorothy, divorced, alone and in a desperate state, marries a religious fanatic and preacher who says he loves her but is incredibly demanding and manipulative. She tolerates his behavior because she wants to change and she wants her children to love her. The love of a zealot is a poor substitute. She wants to be better, but she leaves her dopey husband alone on their honeymoon in their motel room, moments before the marriage is consummated. She cannot bear to live with someone so ill-suited to her, even though she’s barely hanging on by a thread.
As her personal situation worsens, Dorothy becomes more and more obsessed with her physical appearance, almost as much as she is with pills, alcohol, and cigarettes: She caps her teeth so that they are very large, straight and white, she covers her thinning hair (a symptom of poor nutrition from dieting to stay thin) with large blonde wigs (including one she nicknames Farrah), masks her face in heavy pancake makeup, and tops it all off with bold plastic-framed eyeglasses. She wears lots and lots of perfume and buys a tiny Yorkshire terrier who becomes her most loyal companion. She is hiding, yet overexposed. She is a loving yet neglectful mother. She is a devoted wife to Dale during their short marriage, yet devoted to her other addictions as well. She is a pile of contradictions. She is a good actress – much more naturally talented and convincing than Dale – and she takes small roles and bit parts in films and television shows, but mostly to fund her addictions, especially after the alimony from Dale begins to run dry.
Her ambition and beauty, which are the gifts that got her out of her small hometown of Americus, Georgia, are soon forgotten and replaced by her demons of addiction and mental illness. Dorothy was orphaned at the age of six years, due to an automobile crash in which she was also a passenger, causing much guilt and emotional trauma which never leaves her. Dorothy is in another car accident later in her life and loses one of her fingers. She is always looking for love; she has so much of it to give, but she often gets in her own way.
What saves this novel from becoming an illicit tale of drug abuse and glamour gone dim in the bright lights of Hollywood is Dorothy’s tenderness, sensitivity and pure love for her children. She is damaged, but not completely broken. She is complicated and multi-faceted and a beautifully developed character; she is a real woman. The language is lush and verdant: A welcome contradiction to the dry desert heat and intense sun of Los Angeles. Tatum O’Neal said in a recent interview that upon reading her son’s novel for the first time, her thought was that her deceased mother, Joanna, would have really loved the novel. There is no better review than that. Our Town is a love letter from Kevin, a grandson, to Joanna, his grandmother, and it’s a stunner.