Viking published Bay Ridge born-and-raised Tom McDonough’s funny, moving, occasionally lyrical and often insightful first novel, Virgin with Child, in 1981. (Order a copy here.) Previously, McDonough had worked in the film industry, primarily as a cinematographer. He shot the documentary Best Boy (directed by Ira Wohl), which won an Oscar in 1980, and wrote a collection of fictionalized stories and essays about life as a cameraman called Light Years, which Grove published in 1987.
Virgin with Child is set in 1968, the year of revolutions, even within the Catholic church. Father Jack Sullivan lives in India but is sent after a car accident back to the States—to Bay Ridge, to “Stella Maris” (a fictionalized Our Lady of Angels), where he delivers mass when he’s not getting blotto at a local bar, the Casablanca Inn. At the site of another car accident he meets Sister Marian, a nun and teacher at the parochial school, with whom he winds up in an affair. The book also focuses on one of Sister Marian’s students (and Father Sullivan’s alterboys), Peanuts, a stammerer with “a case of nun-worship so severe there was nothing funny about it.”
I emailed a bunch of questions to McDonough, who sent back 17 double-spaced pages, almost 5,000 words; he had used my questions as a jumping off point to “riff” on the neighborhood, he said—on the book and his life so far as a writer and a cameraman. I have reinserted my questions where they seemed best to fit, and even made up a question I hadn’t asked because it seemed like I had.
McDonough began with a quote from Virgin with Child: “Brooklyn must be somebody’s idea of what’s beautiful, Sister. Brooklyn is Paris for some people.”
You grew up in Bay Ridge?
I was born in 1939, in Lutheran Hospital in Bay Ridge, a few blocks from the off-ramp for the 59th Street exit of the Gowanus Parkway. My family lived on the ground floor of a semiattached house on Colonial Road and 70th Street, a short walk from the ferry pier at the foot of 69th Street. The upper floor was occupied by my father’s sister and her two children, Mary and Joseph. When I was twelve, we moved to a similar house seven blocks to the east, on a street that looked considerably more suburban.
What did your parents do?
My father, Joe McDonough, was a traveling textile salesman and a locally famous baseball player. His mother and his father, who was a longshoreman, immigrated from Connemara in the 1880s. One night, when my father was two years old, his father got drunk and froze to death on the Red Hook docks. His mother supported her family as a cleaning lady. My father went to work at the age of twelve. He perfected a beautiful Palmer style of penmanship and worked for a while as a corporate secretary. My first memories of Manhattan were of visiting his office in the rag district and sitting through three-hour lunches with him and his cronies and listening to Yiddish, which had a bubbly sound.
My mother, Grace McDermott, was one of seven sisters, five of whom married Jewish men. She was raised in the Grand Opera House, a vaudeville theater in the Chelsea section of Manhattan, where her father was the live-in janitor. Her father had immigrated from Liverpool in the 1880’s, her mother from Connemara at about the same time. My mother promoted the idea that she resembled the Duchess of Windsor and developed a lucrative sideline knitting custom dresses in the style favored by Mrs. Simpson. Unlike my father, who was a steady but rarely out of control drinker, my mother was a teetotaler. She was a witty and relentless story teller.
From the ‘20s through and ‘50s, New York City was an assemblage of villages separated along ethnic and religious lines. (Hipsters are not an ethnic group.) Bay Ridge was Irish, Italian and Scandinavian. There were also clear class distinctions; laboring people tended to live close to the subway lines; doctors and lawyers typically lived near Shore Road, with views of the bay. The feel of the neighborhood was, and is, predominantly petit bourgeois.
The important word is “village”: there was a code shared by the villages, a sort of peasant book of laws. If I strayed into, say, Dyker Heights, which is a rough (mob) Italian neighborhood next to Bay Ridge, it was understood that the grownups would keep an eye on me and see to it that I got a Good Humor and a Coke on a hot day. We all played on the streets, in the middle of the street, all the time. This is not a small thing; it has to do with caring and trusting and a common understanding of how a city is supposed to work. You will not see a single child playing on the streets of Bay Ridge now.
When you take the Sea Beach Express (as the N train was called) from Manhattan to Brooklyn, and you emerge from the tunnel and rattle over the Manhattan Bridge, you can see, to your right, the skyline of downtown Manhattan and, to your left, the hills of Brooklyn. And you understand why Bay Ridge is what it claims to be: a ridge overlooking a bay. It is the most extraordinary vista in the metropolitan New York. On a clear day, sitting on the stoop of my parents’ house in Bay Ridge, you could look to your right and see the towers of Wall Street eleven miles away in a science-fictiony haze. It is this view that bestows a Brigadoon feeling on the neighborhood.
Where did you go to school? Is the book’s “Stella Maris” based on Our Lady of Angels?
A lot of our life was organized around our parish, Our Lady of Angels, and the parish school. Stella Maris is OLA as I experienced it. There are not a lot of actual physical details about OLA, or Bay Ridge for that matter, in Virgin with Child. What is in the book is the emotional and spiritual pitch I acquired in Bay Ridge, especially in the church.
Was the Casablanca Inn a real place?
There was no Casablanca Inn in Bay Ridge. I lifted the name from a restaurant-bar in Monroe, a town in Orange County about fifty miles north of the city. My father bought a bungalow there, and there we spent our summers while he commuted from in the city. The Casablanca Inn was halfway between our bungalow and the Erie train station in the town of Monroe. The train was pulled by a steam locomotive and it was not air-conditioned. Soot from the smokestack poured in the open windows, blackening my father’s seersucker suit and Panama hat. On his way home from the station, he liked to stop at the Casablanca Inn, play poker and knock back a few drinks.
The bar in Virgin with Child is modeled on a couple of bars on 69th Street in the vicinity of Third Avenue. I don’t remember the names. They were so funky, they may not have had names; more likely they were called by the names of the guys that owned them—like Morty’s or Jimmy’s or something like that.
There’s a scene in Virgin with Child where Peanuts goes to the Casablanca to get a pail of beer, and Father Sullivan tells the bartender to give the kid a drink. This is based on many Sunday afternoons when my mother sent me to the bar to fetch my father. To delay his departure from the bar, my father would hoist me up on the bar and order me a Shirley Temple. This was a chance for me to see a secret world, and to smell it: on warm days, the door stood open and the aromas of beer and whiskey and piss mixed with the aromas of salt air and sewage wafting up from the bay (raw sewage emptied into the water just west of the ferry slip). The light in the bar, or rather the darkness, was forceful. It was a kind of smothering, and in the smothering there was boozy singing and mutterings in Irish. I have not be able to find any traces of these bars on return trips.
Are the sections of the book about the character Peanuts as autobiographical as they seem to be?
Peanuts is pretty much me, especially with respect to his stammer, which often made it impossible for me to speak until it more or less wore off when I got to be in my twenties. The thing about Peanuts’s kind of stammer—and there are several kinds of stammers—is that it makes you see things rather more vividly than if you could speak fluently. If you can’t speak, you watch very carefully; stammerers identify with mute objects. Altar boys like me and Peanuts didn’t have to speak, except in Latin, which no one except the priest understands anyway, and even then…
An important feature of Virgin with Child’s narrative is that the story is set in 1968, almost twenty years after my time as an altarboy. It’s important because 1968 is the year that the Latin Mass was replaced by the vernacular Mass, ending centuries of beautiful voodoo. 1968 was also a politically and culturally revolutionary year, and Father Sullivan’s unease was not untypical of the struggles of many priests at that time.
Sister Marian was my fifth grade teacher. In real life she was plump. She loved her students with great liveliness, and I loved…well, worshipped…her. She couldn’t have been more than twenty-five. When she stood in front of her class, pink-cheeked and dewy-eyed and all draped in black, and expounded on the geometries of the Blessed Trinity—why do I still think this was so hot? The central scene in Virgin with Child—Father Sullivan’s visit to Marian’s classroom—is based very closely on a missionary’s fundraising visit to our classroom. Father Sullivan’s dialogue is based even more closely on the ramblings of a Jesuit named Dan Berrigan, who taught Virgil at Brooklyn Prep, where I went to high school. A few years later, Dan became famous as an antiwar activist. Another inspiration for Father Sullivan was John Culkin, a Jesuit who also taught at Brooklyn Prep, where I went to high school. John went on to Harvard and Fordham, where he introduced Marshal McLuhan to a wide audience. Also, there was a priest named Jack Sullivan who I often served 6:30 Mass for at OLA. Sullivan was a skinny guy and so shy it was torture for him to give a sermon. Even I, at the age of eight, could tell that there was something eating away at Father Sullivan.
How did you go from cameraman to writer?
The classroom-missionary scene was the first scene I wrote for Virgin with Child. I was in my mid-thirties and had been working as a cameraman for some time. By chance I found myself in a writing workshop conducted by Faith Sale, who was an editor at Dutton (I think) and who had been a classmate of Pynchon’s and then one of his editors. For a few months I wrote the posturing kind of stuff that beginning writers tend to write. Then, for no particular reason, I wrote the classroom scene as a short story. Faith liked it. Again, for reasons too opaque to bother figuring out, I wrote additional scenes that I placed, as they came, before and after the classroom scene. I showed the book-length manuscript to Sarah Burshtel, who I knew from around SoHo. She said it was too Portrait of the Artist-y, and she was right. I went on the road for six months to shoot some documentaries in the Southwest. It was a dream job: beautiful locations, light schedule, great food, good pay, cowboy shirts, cowboy boots, cowboy hats, cowgirls. In the evening, after a day’s shooting, I sat on the balcony of my room, sipped a couple of drinks and edited the manuscript of Virgin with Child, cutting out most of the hot air. When I got home, it put it in a drawer.
A few months later, a film I shot won an Academy Award. Harriet Wasserman, who was a high-end agent, happened to see it. At lunch with Faith Sale, she learned that the cameraman who shot it “had a novel.” Harriet got two offers for the book in one week. It went to Cork Smith at Viking, who, among other things, had discovered Pynchon.
I had a couple of very good years. I’d achieved my dream-ambition of seeing my work published, and I was a hot ticket in my little corner of the movie business. I got so busy shooting that I had to turn work down. But creeping up on me was the feeling that I couldn’t stand shooting anymore. Despite the money and the fellowship and the glamorous travel and the sheer fun of it, it began to hit me that shooting was the wrong business to be in if I wanted to be an autonomous artist. And it was tricky to switch gears from shooting to sitting down to write. Why it took me so long to figure these things out, who knows? Money feels autonomous, right?
The mid-eighties were a time when the city was turning back into a bastion for rich white people. It became clear that unless I earned at least $200,000 a year—more than $700,00 in today’s New York dollars—I wouldn’t be able to have a comfortable life in the city. I’d have to shoot all the time, which meant buying a truckload of equipment and paying off the mortgage on it. Then too, I’d learned that interesting shooting projects came along maybe every eighteen months, and that the time in between was filled with jobs where the main effort went into staying awake. It wasn’t the worst thing in the world, but it was no life for a literary gentleman.
I didn’t need to be in the city to get enough shooting work to support myself. On top of that, I assumed I’d sell my next book for good money. So I sold my loft for what was then a good price—schmuck!—and moved to Rhinebeck. There was a good community of writers and artists and it was nice to wake up to something beautiful. Rhinbeck was not quite the boonies, mostly because of Bard College, where I occasionally taught. Once I was asked to fill in on a course called Cultural Reportage, popularly known as News About Yogurt.
How do you feel revisiting Bay Ridge now?
Some years ago I took my then eleven-year-old son on a tour of the old neighborhood. He kept saying he wanted to see Bay Ridge because he was proud of the fact that his father had “grown up with gangsters,” whom he characterized as “like the guys in Grand Theft Auto.” Sitting on a bench near the old ferry slip we saw two elderly Italian gents holding tiny white dogs in their laps, just like in SoHo’s Little Italy. I mean, all over the city, these old soldiers were having small dog contests—it’s a little eerie, but it’s true. My son asked if they were gangsters. I said yes. He was thrilled; he’d seen his Bay Ridge.
During the last year I’ve made four trips to Bay Ridge to scout scenes for a new book. A big chunk of it takes place there. I find it hard work looking around the old neighborhood. I really can’t say why; I’ll save that for the book. There have been times, though, when it seemed like a good idea to rent a little apartment, maybe a studio close to Shore Road, and hang out for a year or two and write about it. When I mentioned this urge to [Bay Ridge-born book editor now at Doubleday] Gerry Howard, he said I was insane.
When did you leave Bay Ridge?
I started drinking when I was sixteen. I was in high school, at Brooklyn Prep, and our preferred place to drink was McSorley’s Old Ale House on East 7th Street. McSorley’s had no problem serving sixteen-year-olds.
Brooklyn Prep was a Jesuit school in Crown Heights—then, as now, the largest Orthodox community in the world outside of Jerusalem. My parents sent me there in 1953 because Bay Ridge was feeling the tremors of “juvenile delinquency,” and my brother and I were showing signs of going down the wrong road. The choice was between the Christian Brothers, who specialized in the application of fists to the skulls, and the Jesuits, who, in addition to something called “mental discipline,” offered a way up the ladder.
The point, really, was that the Jesuits offered a way out of Bay Ridge. And in fact, from the moment they started rewiring my neurons with Latin and Greek, I began to look for ways to leave and never go back. I shifted my gaze toward Manhattan, toward the West Village I glimpsed during drunken excursions to McSorley’s, where the shadows were more alluring, and toward writing, which I gathered was what you did to get your words between the covers of the books the Jesuits were encouraging me to read. I discovered that I loved books the way I loved Sister Marian.
I began to see Bay Ridge as small-minded and smug. The people of Bay Ridge felt they had arrived. And they had. Though they were reluctant to talk about it, they had strong memories of tough times here and in the old country. Bay Ridge had been rinsed clean of these memories; they had been left behind in places like Sunset Park (the location of The Honeymooners) and Red Hook (where the final story of Last Exit is set). In Bay Ridge, cultural aspirations had peaked. Their wasn’t much more to aspire to, except maybe that most Brooklyn of all aspirations, a career in show business. Saturday Night Fever sort of thing.
I got a scholarship to St. Louis University, which at the time could be described as one of the preeminent liberal arts colleges in the country. For four years I read. If it was between the covers of a book in English or French or Italian or Spanish (if the book was short), I read it. A side benefit of going to school in St. Louis was that the city had a large population of down-and-out blacks and poor whites, most of whom had gotten stranded on their way from the South while trying to get jobs in Detroit’s car factories. The music and the food and the night life in St. Louis were tastier and hotter and more alive than any place I’ve known.
This was the time of the Nouvelle Vague, of the shift away from formula filmmaking and military style production to movies about real (naturalistic) humans made in a human way. I returned to New York to become a famous director. My first job was reading slush for Scott Meredith. Then, at a party, I met a film editor who helped me find a job, and a couple of years later I was making enough money to rent a three-bedroom apartment in Lincoln Towers. Much as I enjoyed film editing—the mindset is uncannily like writing—it was dreary, tedious work, sitting in a dark room rewinding film day after day and sipping awful coffee, so I apprenticed myself to a veteran cameraman and learned to shoot, with the idea that I’d be doing outdoor work and making even better money.
I vacated Lincoln Towers for a walk-up in the East Village and from there, in 1968, I moved to a small loft on Canal Street that was so rickety it seemed on the verge of toppling into the Holland Tunnel. This move was an important landmark for me, at least as important as leaving Bay Ridge: I was in SoHo, and even though it looked like little more than an orphaned industrial slum of Dickens, the artists who were moving into the abandoned lofts understood that this was a place the gods had designed for us. Many of the white people were leaving the dangerous darkening city, and the city was on the edge of bankruptcy, and nobody but artists could see what a playground the filthy cobblestone streets could be.
Three years after moving into the little loft on Canal, I moved into a big top floor loft on West Broadway. If you climbed the flight of stairs to the roof, you could see, looking north, the Empire State Building and the skyscrapers of Midtown, and to the south the under-construction towers of the World Trade Center. The views were even more thrilling than the views in Bay Ridge.
Parts of the book are set in India; had you spent some much time there?
In 1973, in keeping with my master plan of becoming an Odysseus of the old neighborhood, I went to India to shoot some films for the UN. The only traveling I’d done outside the US was to the Caribbean and to the west of England and to Dublin, where I couldn’t shake the uncomfortable conviction that someone had transported Bay Ridge into downtown Dublin.
I went to India in May, the hottest time of the year, to the Rajasthan Desert, one of the hottest places on the planet. It was breathtakingly beautiful, but I spent most of my time trying to stay alive. Eight weeks into the trip, my driver ran into an oil tanker trunk and I was left for dead in a burning car. I spent two fascinating weeks in the merchant seaman’s ward of a Bombay hospital, then went on to Sri Lanka, a paradisiacal place of pink beaches and sarongs, to shoot another film.
India jolted me out of Bay Ridge. Did I want to risk my life for the sake of somebody’s expensive home movie? No. I wanted to write a novel about the 16th century Jesuits, which I proceeded ineptly to do. To frame it in the broadest terms, the engine of Virgin with Child is: what does Bay Ridge have to do with India? I’m not sure what that means; the only answer I have to offer is Virgin with Child.
How did the Hubert Selby blurb on the dust jacket come about?
Cubby Selby and Gil Sorrentinto attended PS 102, the public school I would have attended had I not been a Catholic kid. (I recall Gil telling me he was Catholic, but his father objected to the Church and wouldn’t let his son go to OLA.) [The story I always heard is that OLA wouldn’t allow Gilbert Sorrentino to attend its school because his parents were separated/divorced—Ed.] When Cork Smith, my editor at Viking, asked what writers I’d like to blurb the book, the first one I mentioned was Cubby Selby. Nothing has ever meant more to me, in the literary realm, than Cubby Selby’s praise. Cubby invented our language. What I mean is, until I read Last Exit, I didn’t know that it was possible to write about my home in anything other than formal literary language, and if you write about Bay Ridge in formal literary language—language that could be used to write about any place—you’re working against a big emotional and cultural disconnect. It’s not that Cubby wrote in dialect; it’s more like he had one finger on his keyboard and another stuck in the Bay Ridge socket.
By formal literary English I mean the standard English used in writing rather than speaking. As professional writing goes, there’s nothing distinctive about it. You may be able to tell where the author went to school and what books he’s read but you can’t tell where grew up or where he lives now. John Cheever’s remark is too cute to pass up: Cheever said that you can always detect in someone’s prose the presence of Latin or alcohol.
Where was I?
The Kirkus review of Virgin with Child mentions Gilbert Sorrentino; were you conscious of such a comparison?
I didn’t know Gil till we met at a writer’s conference in Montreal about ten years ago. I admired him and was familiar with his work, but I found its Joycean affectations off-putting. I could not escape the feeling that he was using the Joycean style as an overlay to lend his low-life material a literary patina.
The Brooklyn books I was aware of—there must be many others—included Pete Hamill’s The Gift (which is set in Park Slope and in which he takes a pot shot at Bay Ridge for being snooty), Norman Mailer’s Barbary Shore (does bohemian Brooklyn Heights count as Brooklyn?) and Henry Miller’s Black Spring. I think Miller’s neighborhood was East Canarsie [it was Williamsburg, then Bushwick—Ed.]; his cocky stance seemed suitable to Brooklyn.
The writer who opened things up for me was the now forgotten Tom McHale (Principato, Farragan’s Retreat, School Spirit), who wrote in a darkly comic way about the Irish- and Italian-Americans of Philadelphia. By “open up” I mean move beyond the Spencer Tracy/Barry Fitzgerald way of portraying American Micks.
I was more focused on Irish-Americans than on Bay Ridge. I tried to read everything by writers with Irish last names. My most important discovery was Flann O’Brien. It is not possible to be more Irish than Flann O’Brien but (or, and) he was a world-class writer. There was nothing provincial about Flann O’Brien. This realization helped me understand there was no need to “write down” to Bay Ridge, or deal in caricatures.
The biggest influences on my prose was Richie Pryor, especially his two concert films. There was nothing that man couldn’t do with language. The deepest influence, in terms of emotional reach and commitment to honesty, was Billie Holiday. If ever I forget my reason for being in the writing game, I listen to Billie. Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia gave me a new way of thinking about prose rhythms.
Would it be fair to assume, given all the years I’ve spent making a living as a film worker, that my writing is “cinematic”? Maybe. But if cinematic means visual, then Dante and Milton and Hopkins are cinematic. (The most cinematic writer, I think, is Stendhal, but let us not go too far astray.) If cinematic is meant as a compliment or a notation of special interest, there is something half-baked or Nixonian about it. “I’m not a crook, my mother was a saint…”
My style, my way of handling the matter at hand, is a blend of Richie Pryor and the Cubby Selby of Last Exit. I use street rhythms and try to keep it direct. It’s a sort of outlaw style. When it works, I’m also writing poetry. I test words and sentences and paragraphs by reading them out loud. I don’t work like this for large literary reasons; I’m just trying to get the words down so someone will listen and say, yes. Lately, by way of keeping my instrument tuned, I’ve been reading Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain. The trick of going to fancy parties is to dress down.
So, will you ever write about Bay Ridge again?
Meanwhile, back in darkest Bay Ridge: In the new book there are three big scenes set in Bay Ridge. I went out there about a year ago after an absence of ten years. I got so depressed it took an effort not to turn around and go back home right away. The reason was obvious: I was, in a painful, literal sense, not at home. When I was a kid, people would have looked out for me here and taken me in if I needed help. Now, no one would have taken me in—I could not go back to home. I did not own the place. Obvious stuff, and sentimental, but true, true to the exclusion of other feelings.
I went to church. The schoolyard next to the church had changed not a bit, except for the modest memorial to parishioners, about two dozen of them, who died in 9/11. OLA—the church, the school, the auditorium, the convent and the rectory—is an impressive complex of buildings. I’ve never seen anything like the style of brickwork: the bricks are dark red, with a homemade irregularity; the mortar is pure white, as opposed to the customary gray, and it’s twice the ordinary thickness, giving the facades a picture-book feel. I’m guessing the style derives from something in northern Italy or maybe Scandanavia, but I’d need an art historian to sort this out.
The interior of the church is overpowering, and not just because it was overpowering to me as an eight-year-old altarboy holding a candle as tall as myself, trailing around with Father Sullivan as he recited the Stations of the Cross on Good Friday while the organ boomed the Stabat Mater…There stands the grief-stricken mother…It’s just overpowering, ok? We’re working on it.
For blocks and blocks in every direction around OLA there are rows of narrow brick homes. We are not in London, though there is something of London here. We are not in Dublin or Pittsburgh of Edinburgh either, though there is something of them here too—in the compression of lives lived by laboring people, by the compression of generations in the infinite rows of bricks. Bay Ridge has its own signature of thriving confinement, a pattern of captivity all is own, as if the slums of the old world have been scrubbed and airlifted to a bright and breezy place where people can breathe deeply and see far. Bay Ridge has a nobleman’s view of the city that has a king’s view of the world.
There are three electric meters on the side of my old house, which means it’s been converted into three apartments. At the Norwegian Day Parade there are more cops than Norwegians. The Viking warship is made of cardboard, and it’s spottily spray-painted. Most of the blond horseshoe braids come from a party supply store. The fetching Miss Bay Ridge Norway confides to me that she is Scottish.
In the ‘80s, between Narrows and Ridge Boulevard, I see something I never noticed before: enormous Victorian mansions sitting on knolls braced by ruptured retaining walls. These houses are relics of the days before the subway line [which opened in 1916], when Bay Ridge was New Utrecht [which was before 1894]. They were vacation homes overlooking potato farms, as in the Hamptons. Many of them are derelict now, falling spectacularly apart. Are they owned by old families who refuse to sell?
The lengthiest Bay Ridge scene in the new book takes place on a bench on Shore Road, overlooking the baseball fields where I played ball seven days a week. Beyond the fields lies the Belt Parkway, and beyond that lies the bay. The Verrazano Bridge is to our left; eleven miles to the right is the downtown Manhattan skyline, which none of us will ever be able to see without its scars.