For a Literary Man’s Man, Mother Knew Best

IRMA: The Education of a Mother’s Son, by Terry McDonell

The magazine eminence Terry McDonell’s first memoir, “The Accidental Life,” was a collection of career-centered anecdotes that felt banged out with two fingers on an Olivetti typewriter. Each started with a word count and finished like a sock to the jaw with the insiderly journalistic term “ENDIT.” Reviewing that book in 2016, my colleague Dwight Garner noted that it was “light on female personages,” adding that the author wasn’t “opening his vault or baring his soul.”

Seven years later, McDonell has come out with a very personal second memoir, “Irma,” that redresses these exact issues. It’s named for and nominally centered on his mother: a schoolteacher who raised him after his father, Bob, died in a plane crash while a Navy lieutenant toward the end of World War II, when Terry was 5 months old. In an afterword, McDonell says that the book was originally “going to be about me” — and it really still is, though you can feel him continually trying to steer it back to Irma, like a car that’s out of alignment, in time for its publication right before Mother’s Day.

Widowed at 25, Irma was undeniably a heroic, resourceful figure, and a glamorous one, who wore a perfume called Tailspin and drove her small son fast in a maroon Ford convertible to California, the radio playing her favorite song, Doris Day’s “Que Sera Sera.” She was golden-haired and good-looking — “slender, with surprising breasts and beautiful legs,” McDonell writes, less paging Dr. Freud than putting him on mute — and encouraged little Terry’s interest in nature, teaching him about the birds and the trees.

When he and his fellow Cub Scouts played Cowboys and Indians she made sure to get him books about how the Lakota tribe lived, not just Custer’s Last Stand. Their little family moved many, many times but she was reassuringly domestic: sewing him shirts, learning how to deal with artichokes and baking peach pies from scratch.

But waiting at a motel in Santa Clara had been a new boyfriend, Norm, a construction worker who the reader can sense immediately was a real baddie. He advised Terry to kick the neighborhood dogs that chased the boy on his rusty Schwinn Phantom, called him a “pantywaist” on his 9th birthday, grabbed him by his testicles after his 10th and was rumored to have killed a man in Venezuela.

Finding some success as a realtor, Norm showed himself to be anti-Semitic, racist, sexist. He drove drunk, lied, ogled, cheated and finally slapped Irma so hard she fell. By then a jocky teen, Terry retaliated by hitting his stepfather in the head with a bench, and that’s pretty much the end of their relationship — except the couple also had a daughter, Cheryl, mostly an afterthought in this story. The author’s anger lingers, he writes: “bone-hard, comforting like a familiar scar.”

“Irma” is told in three parts, and in the second McDonell, who came of age in the era of New Journalism, makes the very New Journalistic choice to swerve into the third person. It’s hard to know what to make of this, except that he seems to be squinting anew at the very cosmopolitan successes documented in “An Accidental Life,” and perhaps too at his considerable sexual conquests.

He struggles to remember the name of a woman he got pregnant before alighting on “Kathleen.” After Kathleen and a hippie who’s just joined a commune comes Nadine, an Air France stewardess from Nantes. Then it’s to New York, where he writes approvingly of feminist demonstrators “pinching his ass” on Fifth Avenue.

After dabbling in art, McDonell had set out to “make literature in a manly way” and came to be known for his fraternity of very male writers (Thomas McGuane, Hunter S. Thompson, James Salter). Here he affirms his allyship with the sisterhood, maybe a little too strenuously. “He never leered” like Norm, he reassures us. He befriended Kay Graham, the publisher of The Washington Post, and noted Irma’s resemblance to Gloria Steinem.

Unscathed by #MeToo, he nonetheless seems to be now experiencing mild #MeRue: about a drunken escapade with a curator and a drugged one with a visitor in a cotton dress from San Francisco who laughs when nearby church bells toll as he is mid-climax. “He thought he might write about those bells someday but was not at all sure what he would write,” McDonell writes of McDonell. “It had to be about more than just him and his penis, and good luck with that, anyway.”

His clearer “reckoning” is with Hemingway, whose crisp sentences are clearly a stylistic influence, but whose pastimes — especially the lion-killing — and parenting methods prove troubling. “I believe Ernest got it all wrong,” he writes, of fatherhood, and “the thing about Ernest, there are too many things you do not want to know.” Homer fares better, and Irma is his true North.

“The Accidental Life” was a tough-guy book, littered with name droppings. What we have here is McDonell’s soft underbelly — therapist visits, journaling with colored pens, worrying about Alzheimer’s disease — and I am loath to poke it too much. Call your mother.

IRMA: The Education of a Mother’s Son | By Terry McDonell | 256 pp. | Harper | $25.99

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