The Rockaway Irregular
One of the nice things that came out of the two years worth of literary arts festivals we did here in Rockaway (in 2007 and 2008) was all the writers, living on or near the peninsula, who turned up and joined in. Although we failed to pull off a third literary arts festival in ‘09, the Rockaway Artists Alliance, led by RAA board member, poet, musician and author Dan Guarino of Broad Channel, subsequently formed a Rockaway Writers group and they’ve been meeting regularly ever since to read their work aloud, share insights on the craft and experience of writing, exchange information on networking with publishers and to meet with publishing representatives who have come to the meetings. The group’s members also provide feedback and, sometimes, editorial advice and support to one another and, of course, they work together to plan writing events under the RAA mantle and make them happen.
One of the longstanding members of the group, Maureen McNelis, who was also instrumental in bringing our literary arts festivals to life and has written and seen two of her plays produced and performed on stage, recently published a novel. The tale of an abused woman, In the Houses of Men is written under the pseudonym of Marlene Cunningham. In it, McNelis gives us the tale of a young working class girl whose childhood is marred by a disappointed, and often drunk, abusive father. As soon as she can, young Maura Connelly decides to marry and free herself from the misery of the dysfunctional family she has known. Somehow, though, she manages to choose men who echo her father’s worst faults.
First husband, Dick Earhart, is a coastguardsman when young Maura meets and falls in love with him after he has swept her off her feet at a USO event. Eager to leave her unhappy home, Maura rapidly agrees to marry him — even before she knows very much about him. As it turns out, that is a serious mistake. Dick Earhart is soon missing in action, two-timing his young wife and leaving her with major unpaid bills he has run up without her knowledge and, of course, two small children. Forced onto welfare in New Bedford, Massachussetts, after the desertion of her ne’er-do-well husband, Maura seeks a divorce and a new life for herself, eventually finding her way to a second lover, the smooth talking and charming New Yorker, Jason Clarke, who, the hapless Maura learns after relocating with him to New York, already has a wife. Jason, whose real last name turns out to be Kirkpatrick, is actually married to a successful but cold woman in the financial industry named Emma.
When Maura discovers this she nevertheless allows Jason to convince her to marry him on the promise he will divorce Emma who is unable to bear children. Emma, it turns out, is agreeable. But there’s a catch. Jason doesn’t actually cut off his relationship with his former wife as Maura had expected. While he continues to go off with Emma on fancy vacations and to act as Emma’s escort and husband in public, and maybe, for all Maura knows, in private too, Maura’s new husband adds two more children to her brood. Unfortunately, he does not prove to be any better as a provider than Dick had been and Maura is forced to seek work in order to support her family while Jason continues his semi-official double life.
Fed up with his coldness and indifference, Maura decides to do some twotiming of her own and embarks on a number of short-lived affairs, as much to repay Jason as to satisfy her own needs. But Jason’s obsessive desire for control leads to exposure of her affairs and, finally, precipitates her decision to seek another divorce and free herself from the abusive Jason.
But Jason doesn’t give up easily and, when he cannot persuade Maura to relent, he decides to claim custody of their children. Backed by Emma’s money and his own investigative work (when he’s actually earning any money it’s as a low level investigator and process server), he finally has the two younger children taken from her, leaving Maura virtually alone, her oldest daughter by this time having married young to get out and her son by Dick, a troubled youth. Alone, pulled in every direction, Maura finally calls on her younger brother, Timmy, an ex-cop, to help get her son out of jail when he’s picked up for car theft.
A cold and remote man because of their abusive father, Tim fulfills his role as the dutiful brother, but he cannot give Maura the emotional support she needs as she tries to rebuild her life through a network of friends and by returning to college to obtain the degree she was unable to pursue in her youth. Redemption, when it finally comes, appears in the form of yet another man when Maura, heading out to Rockaway on a whim with a friend, hooks up with an aspiring actor and cab driver named McKenzie Jones at a bar called the Irish Circle. The stillhurting young woman is leery of Jones at first though; but hungry for male companionship, she allows herself to be wooed yet again, despite the pain and the mistakes of the past. Things almost go awry because of her long built-up distrust of men.
But the on-again, off-again romance that Maura embarks on with Jones eventually blossoms into something real and the two end up living in Rockaway with his family. Maura builds a new and happier life for herself in the shadow of her painful and grim past as parents and others she has known pass slowly from the scene. Maura’s story is rich in detail, as McNelis tells it, the characters vividly portrayed and reeking of real life — and of real pain. Yet Maura is strangely and sometimes annoyingly passive throughout, failing to see the pitfalls awaiting her at nearly every turn and forever rushing in though the reader sees what she apparently cannot. Perhaps McNelis simply telegraphs too much.
Still, this tale of a weary and too often abused young woman trying to make her way in a world of users and cads, rings remarkably true. I read it in two sittings and felt I had come to know Maura and the people whose lives were entwined with hers in an intensely personal way by the final page. McNelis’ debut novel deserves the attention of Rockawayites and non-Rockawayites alike.