By Dylan Foley
William Norris’s debut novel, “Snapshots,” goes behind the glowing veneer of the successful Irish-American Mahoney family in suburban New Jersey. In a story that spans three decades, Norris develops a vivid tale of family bonds where alcoholism and mental illness are some of the secrets lurking behind the happy-family image.
“I was always fascinated by facades,” the 29-year-old Norris said in an interview near his apartment in Brooklyn. Norris was raised in a rural area in New Jersey that was developed into a suburb. “There was a lot of fatade building going on, where people were constructing these faux Tudor houses on quarter-acre lots to impress the neighbors. There was this illusion of safety.
“There was this sense that very few bad things happened there, but if they did, they were handled quietly. Even in this idyllic setting — it was an hour from Manhattan — you give a car to kids with money and things happen.”
The novel starts in 1997, where the four grown Mahoney children are traveling back home from other parts in the Northeast and London for Christmas. There is the eldest, Kate, a schoolteacher held together by anti-depressants; Patty, a doctor battling alcoholism; Sean, a chef working in self-imposed exile in Europe, and Nora, a veterinarian living in Pennsylvania.
Like peeling an onion, “Snapshots” moves back in time in a series of vignettes. The reader sees Kate as a young woman fighting the onset of an unnamed mental illness that is apparently schizophrenia. With the brilliant Patty, her drinking is way out of control as a young doctor, and the roots are revealed as the novel goes through the years.
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Why did Norris pick the unusual backward narration, used, for example, in Martin Amis’s “Time’s Arrow” and the Harold Pinter play “Betrayal”?
“I should say plot is not my strongest suit as a writer,” Norris said, chuckling. “The book had originally started as first-person monologues by each of the children, but I just couldn’t do it in the first person. Ironically, the individual sections turned out to be highly plotted.”
The effect of Norris’s third-person vignettes can be devastating. One summer evening, Sean and the mother are eating a sedate meal of stewed tomatoes, while the youngest Nora is being sexually assaulted at a keg party in the woods a mile away. At the same time, medical resident Patty drinks herself into oblivion in a Manhattan dive bar.
Setting the book in an Irish-American family allowed Norris to explore a particular religious tradition.
“I was interested in the Catholic imagery, and how the meaning of Sunday and the social necessity of church has
changed,” he said.
For Norris’s elderly Irish relatives, Sunday meant church and its social obligations. “Sunday is now about kiddie soccer and the country club,” he said.
Norris explores family secrets and memories, as well as the shifting alliances among the children. “In groups of siblings, you will have secrets that siblings keep from their parents,” Norris said. As teenagers, Kate and Patty cover for each other’s marijuana use. Patty also initially decides to hide Kate’s delusional episode, where she climbs a tree naked to see what the birds see.
Though Norris is himself one of four children, he is quick to distance himself from a completely autobiographical novel. “My mother has said that the mother in the novel is probably nicer than she was,” Norris said. He noted, however, that “the father’s inability to express himself verbally was something that I took from my father.”
In the character of Kate, Norris movingly explores the effect of mental illness and medication on a sensitive and creative young person. “It is the age we live in that medication is often dispensed willy-nilly,” Norris said, “even for normal human sadness. There are others who have needed it. I was interested in looking at how someone on medication looks at the world.”
Norris wanted to address the side effects of psychiatric medication. “In ‘Snapshots,’ Kate stops painting when she goes on the drugs,” Norris said. “Friends of mine who’ve been writers have gone on Prozac and have not been able to write.”
Besides mental illness, Norris also explores drinking and alcoholism. “In this family, alcohol is a big part of life,” from minor drinking to alcoholics,” Norris said. “What is that line you cross to become an alcoholic?”
After college, Norris ran away to London, tending bar to avoid law school.
Back in the U.S., he was a political speechwriter for a while, then went to get his MFA at Sarah Lawrence. Norris now teaches writing at Hofstra University on Long Island.
It was in his fiction workshops in grad school that the image of a family started coming up. “It started with the story of Kate running away from home,” he said. “Every time I found myself stuck in my writing, I kept coming back to this family.”
Two years ago, soon after he finished graduate school, Norris started the Emerging Voices Reading Series, held quarterly at the hip KGB Bar, a downtown Manhattan bar housed in a former Communist Party office. The series plays to packed audiences. “I pick four readers — two who have books coming out and two who have been published in journals,” he said. “There are a crop of young writers who are not afraid to take chances with form.
“I look for writers aware of language. The work has to have heart and be thought provoking. I am turned off by distant writing, and irony without emotion.”
SNAPSHOTS, by William Norris. Riverhead Books. 256 pp. $23.95.
William Norris’s “Snapshots” explores 25 years in the lives of the prosperous Mahoneys, an Irish-American family with four children. This moving debut novel creates a gripping portrayal of how a family deals with its heartbreaks and tragedies, the secrets that are kept and how bonds change over time.
The novel starts at Christmas 1997, where the successful Mahoney children are returning to New Jersey to see their parents. Going backward in roughly five-year intervals, we meet the Mahoneys as they have evolved, and then see where they began. The reader sees the father, Pat, as a content partner at a law firm, then he becomes the harried associate at the same firm, who has lost control of several his children.
Norris’s beautiful prose captures the dynamic of the family. There are the elements of unspoken love and support, as well as the anger from slights and betrayals that are years old. There are the secrets that the parents will never know about their children, and the horror of dangerous acts committed by children learning how to be adults.
Kate, the eldest daughter, is introduced to the reader as a schoolteacher approaching middle age. As the novel goes on, Kate’s battle with mental illness reaches its peak. It is during art school that Kate has a major breakdown, slashing her legs with razors so that the voices emanating from the colors she sees will stop. Her parents stage an intervention, driving her to a psychiatric hospital hours away. In a heartbreaking moment, the emotionally distant father wonders what he did wrong as he drives: “Looking back in the rearview mirror, seeing [Kate’s] face as empty as the smooth surface of the highway stretching before him, in the headlights, he thinks, what did we do to you? How did we do this to you?”
Throughout the novel, the bonds between family members grow stronger, with some members and fray between others. Sean, the only son, bonds with his mother over their love of food. The father has difficulty understanding why his son doesn’t love football. It is possible that part of Sean’s moving to London to be a chef is to escape his father’s macho expectations.
At the beginning of the book, Sean and Nora are close confidants, though separated by 3000 miles. This is not always the case in the novel, for as the two youngest children, Sean and Nora, battle fiercely, with fights often leading to blows. Despite the violence, their adult friendship is later forged.
With Patty, the beginnings of her self-destructive streak come up when she is a child — she is the good girl, the great student and the father’s darling. She is always smarter than those around her, and is able to hide her secret side better. As an adult, she develops a taste for bone-dry martinis and dangerous men. Norris’s sensual prose draws the reader into Patty’s lush life: “Patty leans over the bar and takes her first sip without lifting the glass. She finds the gin working its way down the throat, into her belly, spreading out into her veins, making her sane and steady.”
Norris offers no easy solutions for a content family, but he develops a vivid picture of the Mahoneys as strong, believable characters, full of virtues and flaws. Readers will find themselves rooting for the Mahoneys in their quest for individual and family happiness.
— Dylan Foley