How McDonell came to understand this brand of masculinity is the subject of his lyrical and self-lacerating new memoir ... It's a beautiful story, Irma’s story with her son. And McDonell’s mastery of this story—a child’s story—is something to behold. The book isn’t long—just 244 pages, with plenty of white space on the page. Chapters are a page to a couple of pages long: discreet, contained, and wondrous like a Joseph Cornell box. At first, I found myself slowing down, because it’s the kind of book you can devour in one sitting ... McDonell never said 'I love you' to his mother while she was alive. He’s saying it now.
In an afterword, McDonell says that the book was originally 'going to be about me' — and it really still is, though you can feel him continually trying to steer it back to Irma, like a car that’s out of alignment ... In the second [part] McDonell, who came of age in the era of New Journalism, makes the very New Journalistic choice to swerve into the third person. It’s hard to know what to make of this ... What we have here is McDonell’s soft underbelly — therapist visits, journaling with colored pens, worrying about Alzheimer’s disease — and I am loath to poke it too much.
I don’t know of anything else like it. Perhaps in empathy for a powerful female figure, it recalls Jim Harrison’s Dalva. My guess is that McDonell’s book became a voyage of discovery of his mother, but also a chance to unravel his own origins and impulses, a rethinking of his own life events, from the changed viewpoint, the inevitable greater perspective, that comes with age ... Irma is a beautifully crafted book. Its rich language and sharp, poignant descriptions are suggestive of James Salter at his best ... Myth is sometimes stronger than fact. One wonders, at the end of Irma, whether McDonell was a kind of warrior himself, willing to do battle for his writers, his clarity of vision, his team, possessing special skills—and tracing his character back to the courage and adventurous spirit of his mother ... Irma is a sparkling book. It has the economy and power of language found in California Bloodstock. It has the literary sophistication of The Accidental Life. But it has the vulnerability, tenderness, and gratitude of a son who made good.