Monday, September 8, 2014

Games We Play: We Are Not Ourselves a novel by Matthew Thomas

I associate the meaning of the title of the first novel by Matthew Thomas with inebriation brought on by alcohol and drug use. Why do we go to great lengths to become “not ourselves?” The story begins in that sense as Eileen Tumulty grows up in Queens learning from her mother how to tend to her charismatic but alcoholic Irish father. It is clear that part of beer truck driver Big Mike’s charisma is the result of drinking to become not himself, holding forth as friend to all especially newly arrived immigrants in the neighborhood bar. His demeanor is very different when he arrives at home drunk every night. He expects to be taken care of by his wife and Eileen during his calm periods and tolerated when he throws and breaks things in the apartment when agitated. 

Eileen is rewarded for her caregiving with her father’s love and decides to become a nurse. She trains diligently and will work in the profession for all of her adult life. She marries Ed, a community college professor who conducts research on a minor scale in an important area of biology, studying factors in learning. Ed is not charismatic but rather a determined perfectionist in his teaching and research. Eileen and Ed have a son, Connell, an intelligent academic but somewhat withdrawn child vulnerable to bullying by the tough kids living in the working class melting pot of Queens. The phrase, we are not ourselves, takes on more complicated themes than alcohol abuse as the small family goes through the challenges of living in a neighborhood that becomes more ragged with age and the development of gang cultures. The pace of the narrative is slow and the description of family life is realistic. Eileen works diligently at her career as a nurse and makes progress in a hospital toward a supervisor position. Ed, however, turns down opportunities for advancement to teaching at a four year college and even to higher positions within community college. He tells Eileen that students who cannot afford to attend universities deserve a high level of learning he can provide only when free from administrative duties. Connell follows the academic example of his father maintaining high grades and test scores. 

Readers learn that Ed and Connell are not themselves in the roles they are playing in both outside and inside their home. Eileen is the mainstay keeping the household together even though her husband and son show a failure to thrive in their ostensibly successful activities in career and schooling. Like her father, the two are very different at home. The differences widen when Ed faces an irreversible condition that forces him and his family to change all of their activities. It seems that Eileen is the only person who is constantly “herself,” a sort of long suffering caregiver at her hospital and home. The reader becomes aware that this is not the case, but it takes Eileen a lifetime to discover her own lack of insight.

Michael Thomas has written a lengthy (620 pages) novel that is deceptively simple in its description of daily behavior in the life of a family. The title of the book includes the reader, and I found myself conducting a challenging life review during the many hours I enjoyed reading the book.