Charming Billy by Alice McDermott
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Alice McDermott’s novels take a deep long look at a character sharing his/her love, hopes, desires, failures. We view “the typical course [of love] from early infatuation to serious love to affection, occasionally diminshed by impatience and disagreement, bolstered by interdependence, fanned now and then by fondness, by humor.”[p 45]
Here she takes on “Billy [who] had drunk himself to death. He had at some point, 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.”[p 4] The “everyone in the room” here is a tavern where a lunch is served after Billy’s funeral.
Billy’s life is told by the daughter of Dennis one of Billy’s cousins – the one most responsible for helping him through his life and for helping Billy’s wife, Maeve, through life. “Billy was for me then merely one of my father’s legion of cousins, distinguished not so much by his alcoholism (it had seemed to me that there were more alcoholics among them than there were Republicans, or even redheads)” [p 42]. Billy was indeed charming – everyone loved him and made allowances for him.
The pivotal moment in Billy’s life – at least as viewed by his extended family – took place shortly after World War II. Dennis and Billy are out on Long Island working on a cottage owned by Dennis’ mother’s second husband. While at the beach one day they meet a couple of Irish girls. Billy falls in love with one, but she returns to Ireland. Billy sends her money hoping to bring her back. But she stays in Ireland and marries a man there. Dennis finds out. Trying to spare Billy’s feelings, and trying to save Billy from years of gossip and talk, Dennis tells Billy the girl died. Billy eventually marries another woman, the plain Maeve, but he may still carry a flame for the Irish girl.
What course did this lie set Billy on? Would he have been an alcoholic anyway? How would his life have been different? As Dennis and another cousin, Dan Lynch, discuss the matter Dennis tries to close off that avenue of thought. “It might have been his natural disinclination to wholeheartedly agree with Dan Lynch about anything. It might have been his reluctance to consider the possibility that the lie he’d told Billy all those years ago was not merely the cause of thirty years of pointless grief but the very thing that had made Billy’s life with Maeve possible, and fruitless.”[p 193]
[END SPOILER ALERT]
I especially like McDermott’s point of view telling this story. She starts with a few conversations between family members at the gatherings just after the death but in a blink switches back in time to the events being discussed. It’s also interesting to hear the story told of a man who had just died – we can’t see his point of view because he is gone. We see the life through the eyes of others.
I thoroughly enjoy Alice McDermott’s studies on life and love. While this book is excellent, if you want to start with her try Someone.