Growing up in Boston and environs in the ’60s and ’70s was very strange, because we, perhaps the primary American civilization, had no representation in art, anywhere. When I was a kid I used to watch television and you’d see an “American” family living in an “American” house having “American” problems, and I’d think, right, but where do they put their books? Why are they talking openly rather than metaphorically? On top of that, why don’t they realize that what bothers them doesn’t matter? Why isn’t it raining and why is no one actually funny? Why do they think that a doctor has social status? Why doesn’t anyone die?
Television and most films, granted, are under no obligation to be a mirror to nature — Sherwood Schwartz was not required to be Flaubert — but I literally didn’t see anyone like myself, or anything like my own environment or condition or family, until I started to read books such as “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” and see movies set in the north of England, which were usually about reassuringly paradoxical people who made terrible, negative decisions.
British and Irish art were the shops that sold the stuff we needed to see our corner of America, because we were not like other Americans. In Boston, we were dark, doubtful, repressed, acid-witted, often extremely well read and, on the whole, we’d rather see you in hell than know anything about your personal life or tell you anything about ours. That is not the usual international description of an American — and that’s just a regular New Englander, before you add Catholicism.
My dad, a brilliant underachiever who never missed a beat taking care of his family and never did a thing for himself, had literally been raised to believe, whether anyone had directly expressed it, that ambition beyond accumulating certain understandable necessities was directly sinful. In the days of the Irish tiger, I’d hesitate to call this tenements-of-dust mentality “Irish,” but it was a Boston Irish thing when I was growing up. In New England we also had the old-line Puritanism, which, purged of religiosity, is a prescription for a life of hesitation — wondering if you should disturb the universe or do the slightest thing for yourself, until it’s much too late and nothing whatsoever has been decided or accomplished.
In other parts of the world they had this thing called self-realization. In Boston, the correct thing to do — financially, artistically, romantically — was to completely miss the boat; to hesitate and be lost. To say you might like to have anything so vain as a career was like announcing that you wanted to be a transvestite astronaut, even if your ambitions were quite ordinary. One job was as good as another, because we all die and what’s the difference? That’s what underlies “The Departed.”
“We were products of the Irish ghetto,” a friend of my father’s said to me once. “Maybe there was something better out there, but we never tried it.” And he gave me a look, suggesting that I not try it either. But I was over the fence already. In “The Departed,” Billy doesn’t make it.