What can you say about Staten Island?
Nothing good, probably. When New York’s much-maligned fifth and forgotten borough is mentioned, it is usually thought of as a wasteland of mini-malls, tanning salons and Mafioso.
As for ethnic groups, three usually come to mind when it comes to Staten Island: Italians, Italians and more Italians.
Eddie Joyce is out to change that.
He is a walking, talking -- and now writing -- repudiation of those stereotypes.
“The caricatures are there for a reason,” Joyce admitted recently over pints and coffee at a bar in downtown Brooklyn. “But those were not my experiences growing up.”
The son of a bar owner and teacher, Joyce graduated from Tottenville High School, then was accepted to Harvard, where he was also able to spend six months in Co. Cork, researching the two topics that became his major, Irish and American literature.
Joyce eventually attended Georgetown Law and practiced law for a decade. However, when his wife, also a lawyer, gave birth to twins, Joyce did something quite radical.
He decided he was going to leave the law for awhile and stay home. Not only would he be able to help raise his children, he could also write a novel he’d been thinking about for years.
The result is Small Mercies, in which Joyce brings a level of complexity and beauty to an overlooked landscape that calls to mind writers like Richard Russo, Alice McDermott and -- how can you not make this comparison -- James Joyce.
“I thought a lot about Dubliners,” Joyce said, freely acknowledging the dangers of comparing his own work to that of the Irish master.
But there are similarities in terms of “making the local universal,” as Joyce put it.
As a Staten Island native myself, I can tell you Joyce has pulled this off excellently, depicting with both honesty and poignancy what one character calls “the servants’ quarters” of New York City.
Richard Russo -- as well as Irish American Matthew Thomas, who just had his own smash debut novel with We Are Not Ourselves -- are among others raving about Small Mercies.
Thomas called it not “just the best Staten Island novel ever written; it’s also the best novel yet at capturing the human suffering that resulted from the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. “Joyce’s...understanding of the role a hometown plays in the development of character rivals William Kennedy’s.”
Small Mercies explores a single week in the life of an Irish Italian family. The father is a retired firefighter whose outward cheeriness conceals a lingering conflict with his Italian immigrant father.
The mother, meanwhile, is Brooklyn-born Irish, a fierce matriarch who nevertheless still carries around an outer-borough insecurity complex.
In Manhattan, she feels “out of place, an outsider, a shanty Irish servant, traipsing clumsily through the dining room, with its fine china.”
The family is torn asunder on September 11, and the novel explores how the family is -- and is not -- putting the pieces of their lives back together.
Ultimately, Small Mercies offers up a very precise, authentic portrait of the quiet yet prominent role Irish Americans still play in 21st century New York City.
As for studying in Ireland, Joyce says, “For me, being in Cork gave me a very definite sense of what it means to be Irish and what it means to be Irish American and how those two things are very different.”
He added, “Most Americans are the descendants of immigrants. You left somewhere...usually under difficult circumstances and we have a tendency to romanticize the places we left. Meanwhile, the people who stayed just went on living their lives. They're not trying to be Irish. They just are. And it doesn't necessarily mean as much to them because the whole country is Irish. Anyway, being in Cork made me proud to be of Irish descent but even more so, it made me appreciate my American-ness.”
Joyce is planning to continue exploring the Staten Island Irish, possibly in a trilogy revolving around a cop working in 1970s New York. As for stepping away from practicing law, he knew it was a giant risk, but he didn’t know any other way to achieve his dream.
“I’m stubborn,” he said with a grin.* Contact Sidewalks@tdeignan.blogspot.com.