Alice McDermott – Charming Billy

Finished up my 4th Reading the Author Challenge book last night – Alice McDermott’s Charming Billy. McDermott came away with the National Book Award in 1998 for this quiet novel and it is considered one of her finest.  

My notes from the first time I read Charming Billy, sometime back in 2004, mention that I found the perspective jarring because while it was first person it was also omniscient. Having had more experience with her work now, I have come to appreciate McDermott’s ability to meld the two perspectives and think that it brings a richness, or maybe a better word for it is layering, to her stories. The narrator sweeps in and out of several story threads at once, reserving different levels of authority for each one. In many ways, the combination of threads work to reveal a larger narrative about who the narrator actually is – but this is done so slyly, so covertly, that it is only at the end you realize what all the storytelling has really been about. 

The novel begins with Billy Lynch’s death (the horrible and messy death of an alcoholic) and the necessary assembling of friends and family to grieve and remember him. They recreate the stories of Billy’s life, focusing on a part of his history that made him famous, the story of his falling in love with an Irish girl visiting in New York, of his asking her to marry him, then sending her the money so she could come back to him and finally, of his getting the news that she has died. This tragedy becomes the epicenter of the earthquake that Billy’s life will turn out to be – nights of drunken grieving, a childless marriage to a woman that everyone suspects knew she was second best, strained friendships and endless health problems.  

But the trick of the story is that the girl, Eva, never died. I am not giving anything away with this information – the narrator and her father Dennis (Billy’s cousin, but more like a best friend) have known the truth of Eva’s disappearance all along. In fact, the lie of her death was created by Dennis himself, a moment of panic when he realized he couldn’t tell love-struck Billy that Eva had taken his money and married another man in Ireland. 

What comes out of this scenario is a frank examination of the idea of fated experience, a look at how our memories are constructed around significant events that, if we have the courage to consider it, might not be that significant in the end. Dennis’ lie is wrapped up in his own desire for fairytale, Billy’s alcoholism is given a convenient excuse, our longing for ideal love is provided safe shelter. She writes: 

In the arc of an unremarkable life, a life whose triumphs are small and personal, whose trials are ordinary enough, as tempered in their pain as in their resolution of pain, the claim of exclusivity in love requires both a certain kind of courage and a good dose of delusion.  

And just a few lines later: 

Those of us who claim exclusivity in love do so with a liar’s courage: there are a hundred opportunities, thousands over the years, for a sense of falsehood to seep in, for all that we imagine as inevitable to become arbitrary, for our history together to reveal itself as only a matter of chance and happenstance, nothing irrepeatable, or irreplaceable, the circumstantial mingling of just one of the so many million with just one more. 

Charming Billy is about so much more than Billy’s story. It is about the complexity and complicity of family life and marriage, a subject that McDermott brings to all of her work with a great deal of finesse. It is also about all the ways you can lose a loved one and how that loss may dissolve any previously firm foundations on which to base belief or hope. And in a subtle way, it is very much about understanding the balance of acceptance and resignation versus cherishing necessary ideals.  

I have two more McDermotts to go to finish up the challenge but I will take a small break and not start the next one until later in November. The next two are completely new to me and I’d like to let these last four fade a bit more before I start again.  

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Michelle

Reader, writer, translator, nature-lover, happy expat and concerned world citizen.

5 thoughts on “Alice McDermott – Charming Billy”

  1. I own this book, but haven’t yet read it — perhaps I should. As you know, I didn’t love my first McDermott, but your posts are making me think I should give her another chance!

  2. Dorothy – She’s an interesting contemporary writer and as I have said before I think she often gets overlooked. But she writes with a very subtle elegance in my opinion and I’d love to hear what you think of her as well!

    SnackyW – Oh absolutely, you’ve picked the best two adjectives to describe her. I couldn’t agree more. I think that my favorite thus far is still That Night….but Charming Billy comes in a close second.

  3. Gautami – what a great idea, I would love to hear your thoughts on Alice. I will do a post when the challenge is over with links to all the participants and their blogs – that way hopefully some people will check out your posts! I have had fun reading them and you’ve convinced me to read some Jodi Picoult!

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