Mary Beth Keane (Martin Hickey)

In the late summer of 1609, Henry Hudson sailed into what the Lenape called “Muhheakantuck,” the New York river that now bears the famed explorer’s name, on a Dutch East India Company ship called the Halve Maen, or Half Moon. The title of Mary Beth Keane’s absorbing and unsettling new novel refers to a fictional bar in a fictional New York town rather than the ship. But like a sailing vessel, her novel explores worlds old and new, embarks on risky ventures, and sometimes makes thrilling, devastating discoveries.

“Lately, he’d been having thoughts,” Keane writes early on about forty-five-year-old Malcolm, owner of The Half Moon pub, for whom “middle age was looming.”

While at the stoplight…a week ago, the sunset a purple bruise above Tallman Mountain and the wide Hudson hidden beyond, he thought: I could keep driving. I could turn right and head for Mexico. Turn left and make for Canada…turn up in some Quebecois Village.

But the light turned green, and “the thought evaporated.” There’s much more to such journeys, after all, than mere rivers to cross, miles to travel.

Fans of Keane’s previous bestseller Ask Again, Yes (2020) already know The Half Moon’s setting well. The town of Gillam is “only about twenty miles north” of New York City, a prospective resident—a cop—explains in the earlier novel. “[T]here are a lot of guys there on the job…the houses all have big lawns and kids deliver the newspapers from their bicycles just like in The Brady Bunch.”

In Keane’s rendering, though, Gillam is neither an Eden nor a suffocating suburban purgatory. It’s a bit like a haunted house. Even with its more spacious landscapes, a Gillam dad still plays catch with his son in “the middle of the road, as if they were on a block tight with tenements, because that’s where he learned from his father.” This is one of several inclinations Keane’s characters “inherited from their parents,” traits that were “present…

just the same as their eye color, their height; the patina of a childhood made up of hand-me-down sneakers and overhearing their parents discuss layoffs, strikes…. When people were raised without worry, you could feel it just by standing near them.

These legacies cast long shadows over the children and grandchildren of Ellis Island who populate Keane’s four novels. Her 2009 debut, The Walking People, spans the second half of the twentieth century, following two sisters and a so-called Irish “traveler”—or “tinker” —from rural Galway to the teeming streets of Manhattan. Then came Fever (2013), a darker version of a similar journey, made by the troubled domestic worker who was catapulted to infamy as “Typhoid Mary.”

In Keane’s rendering, though, Gillam is neither an Eden nor a suffocating suburban purgatory. It’s a bit like a haunted house.

With Ask Again, Yes, and now The Half Moon, Keane has moved into the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Characters casually discuss student debt, killer apps, and how “lame” Facebook is. So it’s tempting to believe that dank steerage cabins and the tribulations of “Bridget” maids have finally been consigned to a cobwebby corner of the national attic. But if we’ve learned anything in the last few years, it’s that—try as some desperately might—you can’t just tuck history away.

And so Malcolm and his wife Jess, the wounded couple at the center of The Half Moon, fall in love then drift apart amid the gravitational pull of those who came before them. There are pleasant memories of long, wild nights and acceptance letters from “good schools.” But there are also fathers with secrets and visits from guys with names like “Bronx Steve.” Seemingly upstanding characters ponder theft, violence, arson. You find yourself thinking twice about characters who, we’re told, “died suddenly.”

This pursuit of various American dreams, in the face of unpleasant American realities, situates Keane in a distinct literary enclave—alongside bestsellers like J. Courtney Sullivan and Mario Puzo, prize-winners like Richard Russo and William Kennedy, and the criminally under-read, like Elizabeth Cullinan or Mary Doyle Curran.


If Ask Again, Yes, was about the far-reaching consequences of one terrible evening (not unlike Alice McDermott’s slim, powerful 1987 novel, That Night), The Half Moon explores pressures left to simmer for decades, until they’re unwittingly released by a snowstorm. Time itself is briefly (if you will) frozen, leaving Mal and Jess to confront an array of decisions made for or by them, recently as well as years ago—some openly, others in secret.

Mal worked at The Half Moon for so long, so contentedly, that when the opportunity to purchase it arose, he leaped without looking too closely at key details. What Mal learns is that not all employees are as dedicated as he was, and that you “could be extraordinarily good at something and still fail at it.”

That also includes marriage. Once upon a time, Jess and Mal were on an impressive trajectory, with their own home, a circle of close friends and family, and a baby on the way. Then things went wrong—gradually, then suddenly. Keane is painfully insightful about the thousands of cuts that can be the death of a marriage. Mal was “the person [Jess] knew better than anyone,” Keane writes. Yet there are times when “she had absolutely no inkling” about what he was thinking, or doing, or why. The arguments that ensue veer from cruel to childish, until Mal and Jess simply lose each other in their own blizzards of spite and resentment. Such wounded love amid swirling snow—and Irish Catholics—can’t help but bring Joyce’s The Dead to mind.


As Gilliam begins digging out, Jess and Mal stumble upon a chance to begin anew. It’s a precious opportunity, though not a simple one. Another boundary Keane explores is that which separates light from shadow—the dark sides of our own personal moons.

Jess paid a price—quite literally—when she went off to law school, saddling herself and a resentful Mal with staggering debt. She did widen her social circle, which now includes a close friend who, to Mal, “pronounced Gillam like she was holding her nose,” commenting upon how “many business names were Irish,” and cars had “a union local displayed on the bumper.” Then there are the “seven Catholic churches within five miles.” The Bronx-born Keane used that exact phrase to describe the New York suburb where she lives with her husband and two children in a 2018 Vogue article about leaving the Church amid the torrent of sex-abuse revelations. In other words, Mal and Jess may not be the only ones whose mixed emotions—somewhere between stubborn pride and provincial anxiety—prompt them to punch back.

Seemingly upstanding characters ponder theft, violence, arson. You find yourself thinking twice about characters who, we’re told, “died suddenly.”

“Each year of high school you went to cost more than most people pay for college,” Jess tells her snooty friend. “You need money to travel.… So there are things you just do not understand.” The same, though, could be said about Mal and Jess. How attached are they really, to Gillam and to each other? And why? “[P]eople like you and me,” Mal says to Jess at a tense moment, “we can't afford multiple big dreams. We can only afford one.”

Ultimately, The Half Moon is about Jess and Mal trying to figure out what those “big dreams” are and whether it’s merely difficult to attain them, or impossible. None of these ventures are explicitly compared to those of immigrant parents or grandparents, though each is bold—and reckless—in its own way.

As The Half Moon’s conclusion draws near, its waters become choppier—maybe, for some readers, too choppy. A strange discovery is made at Mal’s bar amid debates about living “off the grid.” Several trips—to South Carolina, to a resort island—materialize abruptly, raising questions about when, if ever, Mal or Jess or any of us are simply supposed to stop moving.

At one point late in The Half Moon, Mal does stop—at his mother’s house, to tend to some chores, “to remove stubborn vines from her sideyard.” William Kennedy comes to mind here, and the ironweed plant with its “toughness of stem” that served as such a powerful symbol for his extended Albany universe. Both Mal and Jess struggle mightily with roots as well as ghosts. What’s true for Keane is also true for Kennedy: “The dead, they got all the eyes.” Just don’t expect Keane’s characters to reminisce—or slug it out—with the departed, as Kennedy’s do.

To Keane, it’s the silences of those who came before us that render them so powerful. A silence that settles like the snow that “thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones” at the end of Joyce’s most famous story. A heartbreaking, poignant snow that blows “through the universe” to fall upon Mal and Jess and so many of Keane’s resilient characters, just as it falls “upon all the living and the dead.”

The Half Moon
A Novel

Mary Beth Keane
$28 | 304 pp.

Tom Deignana regular Commonweal contributor, has written about books for the New York Times, the Washington Post, and National Catholic Reporter. He is working on a book about immigration.

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