A SONG FOR MARY by Dennis Smith


An Irish-American Memory
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A richly detailed, lovingly told memoir of the author’s tempestuous 1950s boyhood in an Irish-Italian neighborhood of New York City. Smith (Firefighters: Their Lives in Their Own Words, 1988, etc.), his older brother, Billy, and his disciplinarian mother, Mary, lived in a squalid, roach-infested tenement building on New York’s Lower East Side. The family was on welfare; their absent father resided in an insane asylum upstate, creating a “big empty hole” at the center of their impoverished existence. While brother Billy was an exemplary child, Dennis had a nose for trouble, consistently being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He would hang around with the neighborhood hoodlums, joyriding in stolen cars, fighting in drunken brawls, buying heroin in Harlem, and quitting school at 15. He was hellbent on self-destruction. Through it all, his mother fought a seemingly futile battle to save her son from a future of despair. She stayed up waiting for his return from an all-night bender, demanding an explanation. “Like a cop from the 17th Precinct,” she was the conscience that wouldn’t let him surrender to the lure of the streets. She wasn—t alone in caring for Smith: brother Billy passed out advice and the occasional beating; a respected Boys’ Club counselor named Archie demanded that Dennis stop wasting his life. Catholic school helped, bequeathing him a guilt-ridden conscience that hamstrung his adolescent sex life. By the time he was facing imprisonment for assault, smith understoond his mother’s message. By book’s end, he’s transformed his life, earning his GED, joining the New York City Fire Department, getting married, and becoming an upstanding citizen. The final few pages are a paean to the American values of hard work and caring for others. Like Pete Hamil in A Drinking Life, Smith has written an absorbing memoir that vividly re-creates the pains and joys of an impoverished Irish-American boyhood. (Book-of-the-Month Club alternate selection; author tour)

Pub Date: Jan. 25th, 1999
ISBN: 0-446-52447-6
Page count: 288pp
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1st, 1998


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