Book: Charming Billy

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Charming Billy: A Novel

Author: Alice McDermott
Publisher: Farrar Straus Giroux

Billy Lynch’s family and friends have gathered at a small Bronx bar. They have come to comfort his widow and to eulogize one of the last great romantics, trading tales of his famous humor, immense charm, and unfathomable sorrow. As they linger on into this extraordinary night, their voices form Billy’s tragic story and their mourning becomes a gentle homage to all the lives in their small community fractured by grief, shattered by secrets, and sustained by the simple dream of love.


Charming Billy is a devastating account of the power of longing and lies, love’s tenacity, and resignation’s hold. Even at his funeral party, Billy Lynch’s life remains up for debate. This soft-spoken, poetry lover’s drinking was as legendary among his Queens, New York, family and friends as was his disappointment in love. But the latter, as his cousin Dennis knows, “was, after all, yet another sweet romance to preserve.” After World War II, both young men had spent one sun-swept week on Long Island, renovating a house and falling in with two Irish sisters—nannies to a wealthy family—”marveling, marveling still, that this Eden was here, at the other end of the same island on which they had spent their lives.”

By the end of their idyll, Billy and Eva were engaged, though she was set to return to County Wicklow. Determined to earn enough money to bring her, her family, and if necessary her entire village back to the U.S., Billy took two jobs, one of which would indenture him for years. But despite the money he sent, Eva never returned, and then was suddenly dead of pneumonia. The true tragedy is that she had simply kept her fare and married someone else—a secret Dennis keeps for the next 30 years as he watches Billy fall into a loveless marriage and the self-administered anesthesia of alcohol.

Alice McDermott’s quiet, striking novel is a study of the lies that bind and the weight of familial wishes. She seems far less interested in the shock of revelation than in her characters’ power to live through personal disaster. As Dennis’s daughter pieces together Billy’s real history, she also learns of the accommodations her own family had long made—and discovers that good intentions can be as destructive as the truth they mean to hide.

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Like Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, Charming Billy, Alice McDermott’s pitch-perfect evocation of post-World War II Irish American immigrant life, is a novel resonant with voices, in this case the voices of its voluble, bereaved characters, united in their efforts to understand the life and tragic death of their much-loved Billy Lynch. As the narrative jumps back and forth through time to explore the effect Billy has had on the friends and family who loved him, it becomes clear that Charming Billy, like McDermott’s earlier novel That Night, is fueled by the twin engines of nostalgia and lost love. What makes the novel unusual, however, is the revelation, at the end of the first chapter, that the torch Billy carried for his long-dead love (a loss many believe caused the alcoholism that killed him) is predicated upon a lie: the Irish girl Billy loved and believed dead is, it turns out, actually alive, married and living in Ireland. Billy’s cousin, Dennis, it seems, couldn’t bear to tell Billy of her betrayal of him 30 years earlier; hoping to spare him a lifetime of pity and humiliation, Dennis instead told him a fictionalized story of her death.

Thus the central debate of the novel is set in motion: Was it the knowledge of Eva’s betrayal that killed Billy? Or was it Billy’s belated discovery of Dennis’s 30-year-old lie? Or was his death simply due to a genetic weakness for alcohol, as one of Billy’s relatives argues? Whatever the reason, observes Dennis’s daughter (from whose point of view the novel takes place), of one thing there is nodoubt:Billy’s death “ripped apart, plowed through, as alcoholics tend to do, the great deep, tightly woven fabric of affection that was some part of the emotional life, the life of love, of everyone in the room.”

Wisely, it is through these other characters’ voices, and through McDermott’s poignant descriptions, that readers glean a sense of just how keen their loss is. In just a few lines, for instance, McDermott’s description of Billy’s widow, Maeve, manages to convey a lifetime of simplicity, modesty, and suffering.

Maeve sat in front, at the head of the table. She wore a navy-blue dress with long, slim sleeves and a round neckline, and anyone in the room who had not thought it earlier thought now—perhaps inspired by the perfect simplicity of what she wore—that there was a kind of beauty in her ordinary looks, in her plainness. Or, if they didn’t think to call it beauty, they said courage—more appropriate to the occasion and the day—not meaning necessarily her new-widow’s courage (with its attendant new-widow’s clichés bearing up, holding on, doing well), but the courage it took to look out onto life from a face as plain as butter: pale, downy skin and bland blue eyes, faded brown hair cut short as a nun’s and dimmer with gray. Only a touch of powder and of lipstick, only a wedding band and a small pearl ring for adornment…. Of course, they’d thought her courageous all along (most of them, anyway, or—most likely—all but my father), living with Billy as she did; but now, seeing her at the head of the table, Billy gone (there would be time enough throughout the afternoon to say it’s unbelievable still), her courage, or her beauty, however they chose to refer to it, became something new—which made something new, in turn, of what they might say about Billy’s life. Because if she was beautiful, then the story of his life, or the story they would begin to re-create for him this afternoon, would have to take another turn.

The changing nature of perception—how what one chooses to believe creates a new reality, which in turn necessitates a new story—is one of the novel’s most compelling themes. And one by one, as different characters are described and given their turn to explain their views of Billy’s life, one feels McDermott’s tale taking on a particular layered wisdom. The truth of Billy’s life resides in the eye of the observer, but one thing is certain: Billy never lost his charm. Never blaming anyone for the twists his life took, he did not grow bitter, nor did he cut Dennis off after discovery of his lie, a lie that Dennis later admits to his daughter was wrong:

I shouldn’t have done it, I suppose. I should have told him the truth. He would have gotten over it and met Maeve anyway. He would have found something else to moon about when he drank. Rosie was right, an alcoholic can always find a reason but never needs one. I thought I was preserving his innocence, I guess. but I should have remembered that when Billy sets his heart on something there’s no changing him. He’s loyal. He’s got this faith—which is probably why he drinks. The problem is, it’s hard to be a liar and a believer yourself, at the same time.

Unsurprisingly for a novel about Irish American immigrants, faith—for both those who retain it and those who lack it—is another central theme of the novel. In Charming Billy, those without it either suffer pangs of uncertainty or, like Dennis, are to some extent able to rationalize those pangs away. Those who retain faith, like Billy, suffer for their innocence and for their steadfast loyalty to memories, even ones that are proven false.

In the end, McDermott makes no pronouncements about Billy’s fate—whether it was a broken heart that put him in his grave or simply an unfortunate tendency to drink—nor does she pass judgment on the actions of those who claimed they loved him best. Lives, McDermott seems to say, simply unfold, sometimes with grace, sometimes tragically. Ultimately, one of the narrator’s lines could easily apply to the novel and to life itself: “My mother might have been different, my father was fond of saying, if her life had been different. I was a teenager before I began to point out that this was true of us all.” —Sarah Midori Zimmerman

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