CHARMING BILLY by Alice McDermott

Alice McDermott, Charming Billy (1999)[*****] I heard Alice McDermott interviewed by Roger Rosenblatt this summer at the Chautauqua Institute, and was so taken by her I immediately bought her National Book Award-winning novel about a lovable Irish-American man drinking himself to death in mid-20th-Century New York.  Billy is a smart, romantic young man who falls in love with an Irish girl who jilts him for another man. Billy, however, believes for most of his life that the girl has died — a lie told him by his cousin in an effort to spare him embarrassment — and the ripple effects of this lie continue to reverberate through Billy’s life, his family, and his community.  This story was compelling and beautifully written.  I think it’s very tricky to write about ethnic, working class folks, and a charming, lovable alcoholic to boot, without drifting into sentimentality or caricature, but AM does it brilliantly.  In the opening scene — Billy’s wake at a restaurant/bar — AM captured so well a certain class etiquette through the repeated thank you’s to the servers that pepper the table conversation, and the way those being served tuck in their elbows to make it easier for the servers.  I never thought about the fact that I do that, too, but I do — and I loved those little details.  This novel is told in the first person, from the perspective of a young woman, Billy’s niece, who has returned to New York for Billy’s wake.  At first I was bothered by this perspective, because there are many places in the story where the POV is basically omniscient, with the narrator largely absent, and sharing details in stories that she couldn’t possibly know.  By the end, though, I realized Charming Billy is very much a story about story-telling and myth-making and the role they play in creating family and community — and in that way, the POV worked perfectly.  Finally, I thought there were all sorts of shades of Joyce in this story, which seems to me to be a woman’s answer to the way, say, Araby and The Dead portray men’s idealized notions of women, love and passion — which, in charming Billy’s case, lead to nothing but psoriasis of the liver.


About Marta Rose

I am a writer and a homemaker living in Philadelphia with my wife Julie and our children, Trixie and Micah.
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