Charming Billy (McDermott) - Book Reviews

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.
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