O’Malley (In the Province of Saints, 2005) crafts a sensitive portrait of lost souls who desperately try to reconcile their pasts with their current realities.
Duncan Bright is 10 years old in December 1980 and living in a northern Minnesota monastery with other orphans. He has no memory of the first years of his life, but kind Brother Canice, who constantly chews sunflower seeds, provides him with a story, which becomes Duncan’s mantra: Ten years earlier, the Festival of Lights Holiday Train became stranded in the midst of a terrible snowstorm. Many people in the area froze to death, including those on the snowbound train. Early in the morning, Duncan’s mother appeared outside the Blessed House of the Gray Brothers of Mercy and left him on the flagstone, then disappeared. She continues to inquire about him and loves him, but she feels he’s better off at the Home because she can’t take care of him. Duncan, who claims to remember his birth and the voice of God speaking to him, desperately dreams that one day his mother will come and reclaim him. He prizes an old transistor radio, given to him by Brother Canice, and he listens to recordings of the Apollo 11 astronauts at night—voices of men Duncan believes were doomed to never return to Earth. When his mother finally comes, she takes Duncan to San Francisco, where they live a bleak existence. Maggie Bright’s a former opera sensation who’s now a burned-out alcoholic who sings in a bar. Her boyfriend, Joshua, is a Vietnam vet, but the three scarred individuals draw comfort and a tenuous strength from one another. Haunting and dark, O’Malley’s narrative is profoundly moving. His characters bear the wounds of their imperfections, but no matter how hard they struggle to change direction, to reinterpret the past, the reality remains: They cannot heal themselves or each other.
O’Malley manages to take some of the ugliest aspects of human existence and, through the magic of his words, infuse them with beauty and light.