Charming Billy (McDermott)

Charming Billy
Alice McDermott, 1998
Macmillan Picador
243 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780312429423

Winner, 1998 National Book Award
Winner, 1999 American Book Award

Resonant with the voices of its voluble, bereaved characters and fueled by the twin engines of nostalgia and lost love, Alice McDermott's National Book Award-winning Charming Billy is the story of the life and tragic death of the much-loved Billy Lynch.

At the heart of McDermott's novel is the revelation that the torch Billy carried for his long-dead love is predicated upon a lie: Eva, the Irish girl Billy loved in his youth and long believed dead, is actually alive, married, and living in Ireland. (Unable to tell Billy that Eva had left him for another man, his cousin Dennis instead invented the face-saving story of her untimely death.)

Thus the central debate of the novel is set in motion: Was it the knowledge of Eva's betrayal or the discovery of Dennis's 30-year-old lie that killed Billy? Or was his death simply due to a genetic weakness for alcohol? Whatever the reason, observes Dennis's daughter (the narrator of the novel), of one thing there is no doubt: Billy had "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."

Fierce, witty, and haunting, Alice McDermott's poignant evocation of postwar Irish American immigrant life is a masterpiece about the unbreakable bonds of memory and desire. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—June 27, 1953
Where—Brooklyn, New York, USA
Education—B.A., State University of New York-Oswego;
   M.A., University of New Hampshire
Awards—National Book Award; American Book Award
Currently—lives in Bethesda, Maryland

Alice McDermott is an American writer and university professor. For her 1998 novel Charming Billy she won an American Book Award and the U.S. National Book Award for Fiction.

McDermott is Johns Hopkins University's Richard A. Macksey Professor of the Humanities. Born in Brooklyn, New York, McDermott attended St. Boniface School in Elmont, New York, on Long Island (1967), Sacred Heart Academy in Hempstead (1971), and the State University of New York at Oswego, receiving her BA in 1975. She received her MA from the University of New Hampshire in 1978.

She has taught at UCSD and American University, has been a writer-in-residence at Lynchburg College and Hollins College in Virginia, and was lecturer in English at the University of New Hampshire. Her short stories have appeared in Ms., Redbook, Mademoiselle, The New Yorker and Seventeen. She has also published articles in the New York Times and Washington Post.

Ms. McDermott lives outside Washington, D.C. with her husband, a neuroscientist, and three children.

• 1982—A Bigamist's Daughter
• 1987—That Night (finalist for National Book Award, Pen/Faulkner Award, and Pulitzer Prize)
• 1992—At Weddings and Wakes (finalist for Pulitzer Prize)
• 1998—Charming Billy (winner, National Book Award and American Book Award)
• 2002—Child of My Heart (nominated for International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award)
• 2006—After This (finalist for Pulitzer Prize)
• 2013—Someone
• 2017—The Ninth Hour
(Author bio from Wikipedia. Retrieved 9/14/13.)

Book Reviews
Magical…Ms. McDermott's people, unlike so many character's in contemporary American fiction, are defined largely by their relationships to other family members, relationships that are delineated with unusual understanding of how emotional debts and gifts are handed down, generation to generation, and how that legacy creates a sense of continuity and continuance, a hedge against the erasures of time. In Charming Billy Ms. McDermott writes about such matters with wisdom and grace, refusing to sentimentalize her characters even as she forces us to recognize their decency and goodness. She has written a luminous and affecting novel.
Michiko Kakutani - New York Times

Charming Billy is a remarkable and beautifully told novel, with overlays of prose and insight that are simply luminescent.
Gail Caldwell - Boston Sunday Globe

An astoundingly beautiful novel about the persistence of love, the perseverance of grief, and all-but-unbearable loneliness, as well as faith, loyalty and redemption.
Philadelphia Inquirer

Comes close to being a perfect miniature…It is an exceptionally good novel.
Jonathan Yardley - Washington Post

You get no blarney from Alice McDermott's novels. What you get is Irish-American angst—straight up, no chaser. You get probing family archeology, burnished prose and minimalist, backward-arching plots as her characters sift through battered memories for faint signs of redemption.

McDermott's latest, Charming Billy, circles repeatedly and tantalizingly around the ghostly form of Billy Lynch, the late sentimentalist, chatty raconteur, writer of sweet letters and drunk extraordinaire whose wake is the occasion for a chorus of reminiscing relatives and friends. Set in New York City's outer boroughs and Long Island from the '40s through the '80s, the novel is an exquisite portrayal of dream and delusion, the limits of community and, most pointedly, the cruel narcissism behind the alcoholic's grin.

By the end, we still hardly know Billy, but we understand all too well the havoc he has wrought. Especially for his long-suffering wife, Maeve, and guilt-ridden cousin, Dennis, whose well-meant lie may have wounded (but not cursed) Billy's already-doomed soul. Pain is said to have driven him to drink, the pain of learning that Eva, the Irish girl he fell for just after World War II, had died of pneumonia. In fact she hadn't died but jilted him to marry her Irish boyfriend—and for years only Dennis knew. Maeve is Billy's plain consolation for losing pretty Eva, and Billy is a fitting partner for a daughter accustomed to tending to an alcoholic, widowed father.

As in Weddings and Wakes, McDermott's previous novel, an extended family serves as protagonist. The Lynches wring their hands, tell funny stories, debate whether alcoholism is a disease or a failure of will. Most of them are people of limited means who make do with boring jobs. To move from cramped apartment to modest house is a milestone only a few achieve. (A tiny vacation cottage in an unfashionable area of the Hamptons represents both what they feel entitled to and what is beyond reach.) And for believer and apostate alike, the Catholic Church provides the primary life-defining narrative.

McDermott fashions her story out of an accumulation of hints and evasions, secrets and lies. Emotions are closeted, muffled, purged. There are no explosive confrontations, no charged recriminations. Yet the drama is enormous, arising from the tension of what isn't said. Billy, an innocent who couldn't fathom that life is neither poetry nor prayer, is the silent center of a superbly crafted novel.
Dan Cryer - Salon

When Billy, the glue of a tight Irish community in New York, dies as a result of lifelong alcohol abuse, mourners gather around roast beef and green bean amandine to tell tales and ruminate on his struggle for happiness after he lost his first love, Eva. With carefully drawn character studies and gentle probing, McDermott, who won the National Book Award for this work, masterfully weaves a subtle but tenacious web of relationships to explore the devastation of alcoholism, the loss of innocence, the daily practice of love, and the redeeming unity of family and friendship.
Library Journal

Discussion Questions
1. If Billy's wife had been beautiful, observes the narrator, "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" (p. 3). What is the accepted story of Billy's life as presented by the mourners assembled at the funeral lunch? Which aspects of that story turn out to be false?

2. Rosemary says that Billy's alcoholism was "a disease" (p. 19): Dan Lynch says that "maybe for some people it's a disease . . . Maybe for some it's a sadness they can't get rid of or a disappointment that won't go away . .. They're loyal to their own feelings" (pp. 20-21). Dennis says that "an alcoholic can always find a reason but never needs one" (p. 35). When it comes to Billy, which of them is right?

3. When Dennis decides to tell Billy that Eva is dead, he thinks, "Better he be brokenhearted than trailed all the rest of his life by a sense of his own foolishness" (p. 31). Does Dennis come to change his mind later in life, to regret having told a lie? What other lies does Dennis tell Billy, and what illusions does he allow Billy to entertain?

4. Dennis says, "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" (pp. 35-36). Why does Dennis link drinking with faith? What does Dennis mean when he says Billy has faith? Is this faith connected with religious faith? "Redemption" is a favorite word of Billy's (p. 187). What does it mean to him? What does the narrator mean when she contrasts Billy's type of faith with Dennis's (p. 242)?

5. What does the demeanor of the priest who visits Maeve and the way the assembled mourners react tohim tell us about the author's attitude toward the Church and its dogmas about life and death? What are Billy's feelings toward these dogmas? What are Dennis's, and what about the narrator's?

6. Why does Billy love the sight of the large houses in East Hampton, and what does that say about his character and circumstances? What class attitudes are held in common by this large extended family? Kate feels she has escaped her working-class background. Has she really? In what ways has she taken on the characteristics of the upper middle class, and in what ways is she rooted in her origins?

7. Dennis says of Billy, "It's hard to be a liar and a believer yourself" (p. 36). What does he mean by this?

8. In what ways have the life experiences of Dennis's mother, Sheila, helped to form her character? What is her real opinion of both her husbands? When the narrator says that Sheila's first husband "had been, without question, Holy Father to the entire clan" (p. 97), what is she implying?

9. Dennis seems, on the surface, to be an easygoing and simple man. What events show him to be a far more complex and sophisticated person than he might appear? How would you describe Dennis? How does his character contrast with Billy's?

10. The narrator says that regarding Maeve's relationship with her elderly father, hers "was not an unusual case . . . It was, I suppose, the very image I'd fought against myself" (p. 132). But times have changed, "self-sacrifice having been recognized as a delusion by then, not a virtue. Self-consciousness more the vogue" (p. 132). In what other ways have manners and mores noticeably changed in the years between Dennis's youth and his daughter's?

11. Dorothy says that Billy was "maybe too sensitive for this world, if you know what I mean" (p. 168). Do you agree with her?

12. What does Billy's conversation with Eva at the Clonmel gas station tell the reader about Eva's character? Do you think that Billy gets the same message—in other words, does he leave Ireland with a realistic picture of who and what she is?

13. Why does Billy write the message "Beautiful friend" (p. 232) to Maeve after his return from Ireland? Does it mean that he has begun to love and appreciate her for herself, without the ideal of Eva to compare her with? If so, why does his drinking intensify?

14. Why do you think Dennis marries Maeve after Billy's death? Does this marriage come as a surprise to you?

15. In an interview about one of her earlier novels, Alice McDermott stated: "You don't look at the past just once, and you look at it with the knowledge of the present, which was the future. I like that going over, seeing an event through other events that have occurred since, seeing it again and seeing it in a different way, from a different perspective as time goes on" (Publishers Weekly, March 30, 1992). Is this an accurate way of describing McDermott's narrative technique in Charming Billy? Which, in your opinion, are the key events of the novel, and from how many different angles and points of view are they described?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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