When Richard McCann talks about the nine years he has spent living with a transplanted liver, he does not talk about his second chance or a new lease on life. He talks about his “resurrection.”
The Dupont Circle author suffers from hepatitis C, a blood-borne infection he acquired, by his own best guess, from getting tattooed or via a few isolated, college-age experiments shooting heroin with his brother David, now deceased. He was diagnosed in 1990, just a few months after the hepatitis-C test became available. By then, he says, he was already afflicted with “significant cirrhosis from having had liver disease for a good while.”
In 1995, at the age of 45, he began his “active wait” for a donor organ, and on May 4, 1996, he finally received one, in a 14-hour surgery that required the transfusion of 33 units of blood. The transplant saved more than just his life. It also resurrected the long-overdue book project he had contracted to write a decade earlier—though not immediately.
“I didn’t feel I came back in order to write,” says McCann. “The first thing I did was take up white-water canoeing, because the thing I wanted most was life—and by ‘life,’ I mean physical life, animal life, the body’s life.”
Then there was the matter of the adjustment, both physical and mental, to inhabiting a changed body. “In a liver transplant,” McCann explains, “the organ will remain forever foreign in biochemical terms, though it’s very dear to me. It doesn’t feel like mine exactly. I’m aware of the fact that it was someone else’s first.”
But two years into the canoeing and the adjusting, McCann’s mother died. In his life before the transplant, she’d been not only a caregiver and a role model but also the dominant half of his most important relationship—one whose boundaries, McCann says, “are really mushed.” Losing her not long after having his own near-death experience made him realize, he says, that “this journey into your death is really yours and yours alone.”
“It was defining,” McCann adds. “It was different from any experience I had.”
About a year after the death of his mother, he found that lost relationship right where he’d left it: on the page. Begun and abandoned more than a decade earlier, his just-published short-story collection, Mother of Sorrows, traces the bond between a towering, powerful mother and a doting, worshipful son living in a working-class Silver Spring subdivision. Although billed as a piece of fiction, the book is in large part McCann’s own story.
Eighteen years in the making, Mother of Sorrows is that rare work that combines the immediacy and vigor of youth with the wisdom of experience. It was, its author says, “a great luxury” to finish it—and even to want to write again.
“Writing brings you deeper into life, but it also takes you away from life,” McCann says. “The work of being resurrected is a lot of work.”
Dan Frank was a 33-year-old editor at Viking when McCann’s short story “My Mother’s Clothes” was published in The Atlantic Monthly, in April 1986. Frank remembers being “blown away” by the story, so when McCann’s agent submitted a book proposal expanding on its themes a year later, he snapped it up. It was, says Frank, “one of the first half-dozen books I ever acquired.”
Frank left Viking to join Pantheon in 1991, bringing McCann’s already overdue project along with him. At the time, McCann’s illness had yet to threaten his life, but there were other factors that kept him from finishing what would eventually become Mother of Sorrows. “I realized at a certain point that, in some ways, he would have to come to terms with his relationship with his mother, resolve certain things, before he could address the book itself,” says Frank. “The clarity would only come when she died, so I was prepared to be patient.”
Frank had no idea. Though McCann worked on the book in earnest for five or six years, he also gradually returned to his first literary love: poetry. His most recent collection, the Lambda Literary Award–winning Ghost Letters, was published in 1994. After his reading tour for that book, his liver disease began to take over his daily life. “Then,” he says, “that was kind of it for a while.”
Like his unnamed protagonist, McCann grew up in Silver Spring, in a subdivision off Georgia Avenue called Carroll Knolls—one of the few names that isn’t changed in the book. He straddled the world of his public school, where, he says, “we were taught that the future was what was really real,” and the world of his Catholic parents, where “everything was really about the past.”
His father, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, began a Pentagon assignment in early 1950; just six weeks old, McCann moved into the family’s new house in a picnic basket toted by his mother. The starter home they occupied was, he says, a “move up” for his father, a hands-on guy with roots in the coal-mining town of Patton, Pa., who eagerly planted trees and paneled the basement in pine.
McCann’s older mother, however, felt out of place among the young families in their first homes. In Mother of Sorrows, hers is a world defined by her “incomplete sterling tea service” and dried corsages stored in a “violet Louis Sherry candy box,” by her memories of riding a pony in Central Park and of her parents’ hobnobbing with Al Capone and the Prince of Wales. “She was a daughter of what I thought was Irish society,” McCann jokes.
“I didn’t realize that was an oxymoron.”
She was a creature of her aristocratic imagination, and in her younger son, she found an eager student of her past. On Mother of Sorrows’ very first page, McCann writes, “She told me I was her best friend. She said I had the heart to understand her. She was forty-six. I was nine.”
Like his mother, McCann viewed Carroll Knolls as someplace to flee. After graduating from Kensington’s Albert Einstein High School in 1967, he studied acting at Richmond Professional Institute and took up literature at Hollins College in Roanoke, Va., where he earned a masters in creative writing in 1972. A few years later, he moved to Germany and lived there and in Spain until 1982. He returned to the United States the following year, making it back to Washington in 1987, in part to take a writer-in-residence position at George Washington University and in part to pursue a relationship with a man who has since died of AIDS.
That last experience is reflected in a 1997 anthology McCann co-edited, Things Shaped in Passing: More “Poets for Life” Writing From the AIDS Pandemic—and prefigured in Mother of Sorrows, whose narrative quietly depicts the emergence of the main character’s homosexuality. There are, for example, experiments in cross-dressing, vividly rendered in “My Mother’s Clothes”:
I held myself rigid before the mirror. The kind of beauty I’d seen practiced in the movies and in fashion magazines was beauty attained by lacquered stasis, beauty attained by fixed poses—“ladylike stillness,” the stillness of mannequins, the stillness of models “caught” in mid-gesture, the stillness of the passive moon around which active meteors orbited and burst.
There’s also the reflexive fear and admiration the narrator feels for the kind of young man who goes fishing with his father and absorbs the teachings of Boys’ Life, exemplified by his older brother, Davis. In the stories, as in life, the father dies suddenly, from hemorrhaging caused by liver disease. Afterward, the mother undergoes a kind of panic about her younger son, worrying that he might be a little too attached to her.
“There is a point for a male when you are handed over from the mother to the father,” McCann says. “My father died at that moment, as it happened….And my mother became very concerned with making sure my brother and I had lots of male influence. Because we didn’t have a father, she was always recruiting neighbors to step in and be paternal. It was horrible—teach us how to tie slip knots, shoot something.
“For the mother—this mother and mothers in general—that must be a kind of awful moment,” he continues. “Because your desire to impress yourself upon your children, the desire for part of you to go forward in your child, for a mother, that means that you have to start turning against that and saying, ‘No, it’s wrong for my son to be influenced by me.’”
For McCann, of course, it was already too late. Though he doesn’t put it quite this way, he’s come to realize that his mother’s legacy was reading. “My mother read omnivorously,” he remembers. “She had two verdicts about literature. The good was, ‘This is true.’ The bad was, ‘This is not true.’ It applied to fiction and nonfiction. She thought Crime and Punishment was true, meaning emotionally vibrant and full. She also thought that of some Danielle Steel novels.”
As a young man, McCann, who now co-directs American University’s graduate creative-writing program, had no thoughts of becoming a writer. But as a reader he took extraordinary risks. “When I was in high school, during my shoplifting phase,” he remembers, “I shoplifted Yukio Mishima’s Confessions of a Mask. It’s Mishima’s most autobiographical novel, about growing up gay….I couldn’t have said why then, but I shoplifted that and I was stunned by it. It spoke to me more intimately than books I was used to reading.”
Another book McCann lifted during this mildly rebellious period was, he says, “an odd book for a high-school kid, Jean Genet’s The Thief’s Journal.” The French dramatist’s self-described meditation on “betrayal, theft, and homosexuality,” became, McCann says, “the other big influence. The person whom I thought I was couldn’t believe the poetry of tawdriness. It made me want to have a life that was more poetic and more tawdry. I was so happy to achieve it.”
Since his transplant, McCann says he’s come to understand that his childhood in the suburbs “was a stage that was as rich and full of meaning as any other.” He doesn’t care for the cheap and easy humor of the subdivision—the story of the man going into the wrong house, kissing the wrong wife. He cites New Englander John Cheever and Californian Joan Didion as influences in this regard but notes, “There really isn’t a literature about growing up in the suburbs of D.C.”
“Growing up in America in a suburb in the 1950s and the 1960s, there wasn’t a lot of beautiful stuff around,” he says. “But to me—this might sound nuts—looking at the
Morton’s salt box, that was fascinating. I’m not just interested in naturalism, but some details, I think, encode a whole world within them, and those were the ones I wanted.
“For me as a writer,” McCann adds, “nothing has ever seemed interesting enough for me to write about unless it was a kind of deep psychic investigation—unless I had something very personal at stake.”CP
McCann discusses and signs copies of Mother of Sorrows at 7:30 p.m. Monday, May 23, at Borders, 5871 Crossroads Center Way, Baileys Crossroads, and at 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 24, at Lambda Rising, 1625 Connecticut Ave. NW. Fore more information, call (703) 998-0404 or (202) 462-6969, respectively.