Alice McDermott can spin a tale. With each page you await a new turn, a new revelation, but she does this without the “aha” tricks of a lesser writer. Instead, as a storyteller, you await her unraveling of a tale that you know tells us more than it appears on the surface.
In Charming Billy, McDermott sets before us the death of Billy Lynch, an alcoholic with a broken heart and life. Still, he finds a patient woman to marry and lives out a life filled with late night drunken calls, failed attempts at reformation, and ongoing quick notes he sends to everyone. He thinks of others, yet cannot face himself.
McDermott gives us real characters. There are no villains or heroes, but people who make mistakes at times and help others the next day. Billy loves his wife, even as he misses the Irish girl from his youth. His cousin, and the father of the narrator, Dennis, is the stable one if the family. But he too has his faults to balance out his ongoing receipts of Billy’s late night calls, or calls to help get him in the house in another drunken stupor. As the family gathers for Billy’s death, the stories pour out about Billy and others. We see people who have been dealt the blows of life, recovered, and moved on. Lives intertwine, allegiances are called upon, and some secrets are left secret.
Even Billy’s drinking, while devastating, is put in context by another cousin after his death.
“What’s nonsense is all this disease business” he said. “Maybe for some people it’s a disease. But maybe for some there are things that happen in their lives that they just can’t live with. Thins that take the sweetness out of everything. Maybe for some it’s a sadness they can’t get rid of or a disappointment that won’t go away. And you know what I say to those people? I say good luck to those people.” He raised his glass, raised his chin. “I say maybe they’re not as smart and sensible and accepting as every one of us…but they’re loyal. They’re loyal to their own feelings.”
Loyal to his feelings is true Billy, but only to himself. Still, in a drunken ramble, as he talks about the death that has overshadowed his life, we find he is loyal to his faith as well. These are Catholic folks, and Billy is committed to his beliefs. It is not simply a matter of fulfilling the obligations of mid-20th century Catholicism, but of believing in his faith. He addresses the issue of death head on, not with a Sunday school faith, but of one willing to let his faith delve in the darkness as well as the light. Death is an injustice, and horrible interruption of life — not just a mere part of life.
“Our Lord knew it,” Billy went on. “Our Lord knew it [death] was terrible. Why would He shed His own blood if death wasn’t terrible?” There was another pause, another sip of whiskey. “You know what makes a mockery of the Crucifixion?” Billy said. “You know what makes it pointless? Anyone saying that death is just an ordinary thing, and ordinary part of life. It happens, you reconcile yourself, you go on. Anyone saying that is saying Our Lord’s coming was to no avail.” … “What do we need the Redemption for?” Billy asked him. “If death isn’t terrible. If we’re reconciled? Why do we need heaven or hell? It makes no difference. If death doesn’t trouble us, the injustice of it, then we don’t need heaven or hell, do we? If might as well be a lie.”
Lies are a part of Billy’s life, but he does not know it for many years. When he discovers that he has long been mislead, he simply returns to his life. Of course, inside, he still struggles. And that is where we are left guessing. Everyone is busy trying to understand Billy, because Billy lived his life without involving others in his thoughts and feelings. And everyone seems to know they were missing out as a result.
McDermott is a great writer who incorporates faith into her stories. I also highly recommend her novel, Someone, which I read last year. She is someone I’ll be continuing to seek out. Just for the record, here is her publisher’s official author bio:
Alice McDermott is the author of several previous novels, including After This; Child of My Heart; Charming Billy, winner of the 1998 National Book Award; and At Weddings and Wakes, all published by FSG. That Night, At Weddings and Wakes, and After This were all finalists for the Pulitzer Prize. McDermott lives with her family outside Washington, D.C.