A young boy witnesses family dysfunction and tragedy in the wake of his seaman uncle’s arrival in New York.
After 50 years, Jack, a ship’s carpenter in the British Merchant Service, is on his last ship before his retirement, and New York, where his brother and his family live, is his final port of call. “The sea has been good to me, blewdy good,” he mutters. “So it’s on now to the next chapter of my life—a crusty ol’ Liverpool pensioner, fillin’ ’is days with pipe, paper, and the occasional pint at Baltic Fleet Pub.” Bird (A Rough Road, 2011, etc.) ominously sets the stage for dire things to come with a gut-punch sentence: “But Jack will never return to England.” The author’s debut memoir chronicled his bout with polio in 1940 at the age of 4. This next chapter in the family saga is set in 1956, the year when the raucous records of Elvis Presley, Little Richard, and other fledgling rockers began turning up on jukeboxes in the pubs frequented (to excess) by 7-year-old Johnny’s father, Bill. This compact book is of a piece, but it is defined by two incidents. The first concerns a family party in honor of Jack’s visit. Bird deftly sketches the close-knit family and friends, including Margaret, the homely sister of Johnny’s mother, Nan, with a predilection for watching TV wrestling; Martin Moran, a recent émigré, who comes from “beyond the far”; and Bill, whose drunken antics on this night will expose the resentments of his wife of 25 years and who administers a shattering payback. The second incident, about which the less said the better, concerns Bill and Johnny’s Easter Sunday visit to Jack’s ship and the aftermath that cements family ties. Bird exhibits a keen ear for English and Irish dialects and the folk tunes that bind the Astoria, Queens, neighbors, as well as a respect for ritual. At the party for Jack, “Nan softly sings ‘Mother Machree’ and Margaret follows with ‘Home to Mayo,’ each delivered with sweet longing.” The slippery rules of memoir allow for conversations to which the author could not possibly have been privy, but they read as emotionally true.
An immigrant story with universal appeal.