Michael Patrick MacDonald’s Southie exodus
SAVING GRACE: MacDonald’s first real glimpse of life beyond South Boston’s Old Colony housing project was through the tear in the societal fabric made by punk rock.
Many of us like to say that rock and roll saved our lives. In Michael Patrick MacDonald’s case, the common hyperbole may be simple truth. A child of South Boston’s drugs and violence and a survivor of the racial busing riots of the ’70s, MacDonald had already lost two of his nine siblings to poverty and madness before discovering the saving grace of loud, fast, and furious music. He’d lose two more before he made his own escape final.
In his 1999 memoir, All Souls, MacDonald (who now lives in Brooklyn), recounted in almost affectless prose the horrors of the Old Colony housing project, a hellhole of brutal initiations and cockroach-infested kitchens, capped by massive communal denial insisting that Southie was “the best place in the world.” In his new book, Easter Rising, the Irish-American MacDonald revisits some of those memories from the period when Whitey Bulger ran the town, including the frequent “times” MacDonald raised funeral money after too many violent deaths. A livelier, more episodic work than his first, Easter Rising focuses on escape, explaining how the author shed the community’s shared delusion and dodged the downward suck of desperation and drugs. After a long journey, with several stops, MacDonald’s first real glimpse of life beyond Old Colony was through the tear in the societal fabric made by punk rock.
MacDonald may have had a leg up. As Easter Rising opens, he describes himself as an incipient outsider in simple prose that rings out with the seagull-caw accent of South Boston. It’s 1979, and a 13-year-old Michael Patrick MacDonald is already different from his peers. “What are you, a fuckin’ losah?” he hears more than once. MacDonald is the quiet one in a boisterous family — the eighth of 10 kids — and the intellectual who won admission to Boston Latin. Named for a brother, Patrick Michael, who died in infancy before hospitals were required to admit the uninsured, he is an adventurer who vaults subway turnstiles not to get one over on the authorities, but to see Greater Boston. But it is still “the world against Southie and Southie against the world” until his brother Davey jumps off a roof. The suicide of Davey, who’d been hospitalized for schizophrenia, is what fractures this complacency, pushing MacDonald from the community. Although MacDonald’s writing is straightforward — and at times overly conversational — his descriptions of grief and alienation will ring true to any who have experienced them. “I wanted never to forget him, and I was afraid that I could,” says MacDonald at Davey’s graveside. The insular world becomes suffocating and he begins taking long detours home to avoid the neighbors. “After Davey’s death, I couldn’t stand their sudden hush in my presence.”
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