Charming Billy

by Alice McDermott

Hardcover, 1997




Farrar, Straus and Giroux (1997), Edition: 1st, 280 pages


A young woman, cousin to the late Billy Lynch who has just died of alcoholism, traces the story of his lost love, discovering her own father's role in trying to keep Billy from being hurt by the truth about Eva, and contemplating the effect her father's lie had on the rest of the family.

Media reviews

We all have books that rededicate us to the fantastic powers of fiction, and this is one of mine. McDermott makes the point that when a person’s life story is fully told they may become more mysterious—easy to say, but when fiction brings you to a realization like this, when an author can make
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this happen inside of you—there’s nothing like it.
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User reviews

LibraryThing member rocketjk
This is the story of several generations of an Irish Catholic family from Queens. The narration revolves around the life of the title character, who as the book begins has just been buried, killed by his alcoholism. The tale is told by the daughter of Billy's cousin, Dennis. So close have Billy and
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Dennis been throughout life that they are more like brothers than cousins, and it is Dennis who has tried to keep his cousin steady through his increasingly chaotic life.

The tale weaves between time periods and points of view very skillfully. This serves the novel extremely well, however, as the narration shifts seemingly effortlessly from place to place in much the way real memory does, and never is the reader left confused about where or when or what we're being shown. So much for form (which is a major component of the effectiveness of this novel).

The story itself is a heartbreaking examination of the power, for good and ill, of the tangled inter-connection of family and community, of dreams, of relentless loyalty to a passion or an idea or a memory, and of the lingering, corrosive energy of a single lie, told out of mercy and left uncovered for decades. The story is told with kindness and amazing insight, and we are left with a sense of admiration for this examination of the human comedy/tragedy, and a renewed wonder at our limitless human capacity for regret and self-deception, yes, but also, to a narrower extent, for forgiveness, if not for ourselves than at least for others.
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LibraryThing member cammykitty
Beautifully written unpleasant book.
LibraryThing member maryreinert
Billy Lynch was a charmer and an alcoholic. He was a part of a very tightly knit Irish American family and extended family. When he was young, he and his council, Dennis, met two girls from Ireland who were working as nannies for a wealthy family on Long Island. Billy fell madly in love with Eva;
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Dennis dated Mary, the sister. Eva had to return to her family in Ireland and Billy, determined to marry her, sent money and letters to her constantly. She never returned. Mary told Dennis that Eva had taken the money and married another in Ireland. Dennis, hating to hurt his friend, told him that Eva had died. Billy grieved, but life went on.

Dennis went on to marry another but the two cousins remained as brothers. Dennis had a family and Billy went on to marry Maeve, the only daughter of a widowed alcoholic. Billy also turned to drink and Maeve quietly took care of both father and husband.

The book opens with the scene after Billy's funeral. He was found in the street drunk. The family reminisces and the truth is told. No one is ever sure if Maeve knows about the "Irish girl" or not.

Not a lot really happens in the book as it is more of a character study than plot although the lie Dennis tells colors the rest of Billy's life. It's a story of family loyalty, past memories, and sadness while always "carrying on." Maeve seems to me to be just another one of those Irish women whose life is dominated by family and events beyond their control.

(At the last paragraph, Maeve winds up marrying Dennis).
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LibraryThing member gwendolyndawson
Even at his funeral party, Billy Lynch's life remains up for debate. The true genius of this story lies in McDermott's telling of the same events from different points of view at different points in time, demonstrating the lack of objectivity and certainty that surrounds everyday life. More than
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anything else, Billy (like all of us) is a disparate collection of stories and opinions and myths as viewed by his friends and family.
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LibraryThing member ericap32
Absolutely lovely. Elegiac without being maudlin or sappy, it is a quiet reflection on a man's lifetime addiction to alcohol, and its effects on his family and friends. I love Alice McDermott -- like another of my much loved authors, Alice Munro, she has a gift for drawing characters that are real,
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and instantly recognizable. And though her themes are deeply personal, dealing mostly with family and relationships, she is stubbornly anti-sentimental.
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LibraryThing member upstairsgirl
Billy's death sets off an avalanche of reminisces related by those who knew him and retold by his cousin's daughter. McDermott weaves past and present into an intergenerational mythology in which Billy, despite his ultimately failing battle with alcoholism, is one of the heroes. Like so many
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families, Billy's has had a complicated relationship with alcohol and with his alcoholism, and even as they remember his better qualities, his relatives all struggle with their role as enablers in it. McDermott does an excellent job of mimicking the faint haze of memory that drapes itself on family stories passed down from generation to generation, and the result is a beautiful, strange, sad, compelling little novel.
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LibraryThing member nycbookgirl
The book starts out with family members gathering together at a pub in the Bronx for the wake (they are Irish-American) of Billy Lynch. Yes, the charming Billy of the title is dead. He's left behind his wife Maeve, no children, but a slew of other family members. Maeve is holding up and even has a
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drink to toast her husband...which is noticeable since Maeve doesn't normally drink and since Billy died from alcoholism. And of course, as all big families do...gossip abounds. The main topic, of course, is the Irish girl Billy loved back after the War and whom he was going to bring to America and marry. And how she died before he could bring her over and how that affected his life.

So the story flips back and forth between the present day of Billy's funeral and the past. It's narrated by the daughter of Billy's cousin Dennis. And snippets of other family's members past events are thrown in.

Honestly, this book is really hard to review because it's really about a single plot. Instead, it just revolves around the life, love, and relationships of Billy's family. And it works because I was just absorbed by the story and the writing. And this is really impressive since there really is no single plot.

And I really liked all the characters, especially charming Billy. This book because it offers an honest and beautifully written glimpse into the life of Billy Lynch and his family.
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LibraryThing member cestovatela
Well-written and character-driven story of a family struggling with an alcoholic whom they can't quite bring themselves to hate.
LibraryThing member brigitte64
It`s a nice way of describing things but it wanders around to much, this was boring to me after a while. I tried but I coudn`t finish it.
LibraryThing member jenn_stringer
I haven't ready any of her other works, but I was struck by lyrical nature of her writing. She's writes about such painful situations with such sweet eloquence. She takes the reader on a journey that tells a story of love, lies, friendship, family and drink. Great storytelling.
LibraryThing member Perednia
Sometimes rambling story of the tragedy of Billy that packs a wallop when McDermott gets to her story's climactic point.
LibraryThing member Whisper1
I have mixed thoughts/feelings about this book. It is a National Book Award recipient. The writing is lyrical, poetic with images that carry the reader along wherein you can smell the ocean air, feel the heat of the sand and sunshine, touch the fireflies and taste the pitchers of drinks as the
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characters consume sea food and bask in the company of good friends and family.

But, as wonderful as the writing is, still, the author rambled. There were too many times when I had to go back and read a paragraph or a sentence to follow what was happening or what character was being described.

Charming Billy and his obsessively loyal cousin Dennis spent a life time together, sharing joys, sorrows, difficulties and easy times. As Billy increasingly slips into alcoholism the easy times are few while Dennis picks up the pieces of Billy's shattered life.

At times enabler, at times confrontational, Dennis shares a drink and then helps his cousin when he falls off the bar stool. Propping him up, returning him home late at night broken, cut and battered, the next few days Dennis slips into the lecturer and moral compass.

Dwelling in the past and holding on to a love who left, Billy wastes his life in what could have been while refusing to see the beauty currently in his life.

This is a depiction of Irish American life, friendship and family, and while there is love and stability, there is also chaos and sorrow. The book begins at the end of Billy's life. Dying from the effects of years of hard drinking, his friends gather at a small Bronx, NY bar to share memories. Looking back on Charming Billy's life brings tears of pain and of happiness.

I recommend the book with reservations, and I'm going out on a limb in asking the rhetorical question of why so many authors depict the Irish culture as Catholics who attend mass on Sunday, confessing their sins, while getting down and out in the gutter drunk on Monday - Saturday? Is it necessary that consistently authors depict Irish Catholic woman as long suffering martyrs?

Can someone please direct me to a book where the Irish culture is portrayed in a healthy manner?
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LibraryThing member MarianV
Charming Billy is a novel of family life in the Irish-American communities of Long Island. The title character is, indeed, charming. To say more, however, would give away the unexpected plot twists of this very readable book.
LibraryThing member MiserableLibrarian
Ah, no one tells a story like the Irish. Billy is a drunk, Billy is a fatalist, Billy is a realist, Billy is charming. His cousin’s daughter tells the story of Billy, learned mostly through her father, of Billy’s lost love and his life’s frustration. Once again, there’s little bitterness
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(but there is a wee bit), and much seat-of-the-pants philosophizing.
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LibraryThing member wareagle78
A graceful tale, an extended wake and reflection on the life of a man. Poignant, well-written characters, can't exactly say it was a pleasure to read but the author is very skilled in helping us see a man's life -- the joys, the despairs, the rejection.
LibraryThing member TheAmpersand
A slow, sad book that describes the way that a sudden romantic disappointment changes the life of a likeable Irish-American drinker. McDermott's skilled at conveying the essence of character: after finishing "Charming Billy," I felt like I knew him, along with many of his friends, relatives and
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associates. Still, the parts of this novel I enjoyed most were, paradoxically, some of the elements that had least to do with any particular character. The book's got some lovely descriptions of the Long Island shoreline and skilfully traces its development from a sparsely populated wilderness to an ordinary suburb. She's also good at conveying the relative isolation that the Irish community once lived in. Most of the lives described in "Charming Billy" are unambitious and constrained, and this provides a welcome contrast to the content-free nostalgia that's seems so common among many latter-day Irish Americans. For all its focus on its titular character, McDermott's book is really the story of a whole community, and, in its way, an elegy for a way of life. It's narrated by a daughter of one of Billy's cousins, someone working her way out of the Irish-American experience, and I think that this was a wise choice on the author's part, since it provides a certain necessary distance from Billy's experience.

At the same time, I'm not sure that I really enjoyed this one. I feel that, in portraying the Irish-American community that could sometimes be as claustrophobic as it was supportive, McDermott is making a conscious effort to write against some well-worn sentimental ethnic tropes. The problem is that I'm not sure that she always succeeds: Billy himself is a silver-tongued charmer with a drinking problem, after all, and we meet a full complement of suffering Irish mothers and dashing Irish hellraisers, too. Also, while she writes well, the author also tends to hold on to both her sentences and her scenes a bit too long. In short, this book drags in places, and I think that many readers will find the scenes of extended post-funeral mourning as hard to get through as I did. For all this, its not a bad read, or a bad novel, but I'm not sure it screams "prize-winner." Apparently, someone over at the National Book Foundation feels differently.
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LibraryThing member lucybrown
There is a quiet sturdiness to this book as embodied by the characters of Maeve and Dennis, but aside from that I can't think of much to say about it. I didn't love it; however, I liked it well enough. At least it wasn't maudlin or bitter. Interesting ordinary people.

LibraryThing member lucybrown
There is a quiet sturdiness to this book as embodied by the characters of Maeve and Dennis, but aside from that I can't think of much to say about it. I didn't love it; however, I liked it well enough. At least it wasn't maudlin or bitter. Interesting ordinary people.

LibraryThing member lucybrown
There is a quiet sturdiness to this book as embodied by the characters of Maeve and Dennis, but aside from that I can't think of much to say about it. I didn't love it; however, I liked it well enough. At least it wasn't maudlin or bitter. Interesting ordinary people.

LibraryThing member moonshineandrosefire
The people who knew and loved Billy Lynch the best have all come to comfort his widow Maeve, and to eulogize a man whom many considered to be one of the last great romantics. From all accounts, the late Billy Lynch was such a wonderful man - a man who was an extraordinarily unique soul. As
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forty-seven members of his funeral party gather together at a local Bronx bar to reminisce over their memories of the past; each trading their own tales of his legendary humor, immense charm, and deepest, most profound sorrow - Billy Lynch will be remembered most by the people whose lives were touched by his presence.

As the mourners linger on into this extraordinary evening, their voices will eventually blend together to tell Billy's own tragic story. What is finally revealed to all present is a complex portrait of an enigmatic man; a loyal friend, a beloved husband, a functional alcoholic. While Billy's loved ones continue to hold Maeve in the highest esteem and admire her strength, there are those among the mourners who cannot remember Billy without also recalling the source of his unfathomable grief and sadness: "There was that girl." Their various stories weave together to become a gentle homage to all the lives in their close-knit community fractured by grief, shattered by secrets, yet sustained by the simple dream of love.

In a voice that is resonant and full of deep feeling, Alice McDermott tells the tale of Billy Lynch within the complex confines of a tightly knit Irish-American community. Charming Billy is a poignant masterpiece about the unbreakable bonds of desire and memory. Ms. McDermott's striking novel, is an intricate study of the lies that bind and the weight of familial love, of the way good intentions can be as destructive as the truth they were meant to hide.

I must say that I really enjoyed reading this book. In my opinion, this was a poignant and well-written story; one that I found both intriguing and intricately detailed. Having said that, I will admit that I found the book somewhat confusing with regards to some of the relationships between the characters and the frequent shifts back and forth between the past and the present. I would still give this book an A! and am happy to note that I have three or four more books by this author on my bookshelf.
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LibraryThing member Cherizar
The post funeral luncheon of an alcoholic brings out the stories of a man's life and his lasting impact on individuals - at times the vivid writing allows you to feel the salt air, feel the ocean wind, ache with the loneliness - good, satisfying read.
LibraryThing member OccassionalRead
Judging from the reviews on, readers either really liked this book and gave it 5 stars or didn't like it at all and gave it one or two. I fall in the former camp. Those who didn't like the book said it was "confusing", complained that the narrator was a minor character directing her
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discourse to her husband who barely makes an appearance in the book. It lacked plot and a strong story line. I agree that here and there it was a bit confusing but found the novel moved along and held my interest despite the fact that the broad outline of the story is unveiled early on. What does unfold over time is the portrait of two generations of a large New York Irish family and their friends. Charming Billy's life, and that of his life-long cousin and friend Dennis, are sketched out through observations of others, direct conversations, remembrances, intuitions, facts and opinions, gossip. What the reader is left with is a lyrical, sad, sometimes funny, description of ordinary life, with all its ephemeral joys, triumphs, and inevitable disappointments.
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LibraryThing member cole0619
Great book. You feel like you are experiencing alcoholism along with Billy and his family. It is one of those books that you cannot put down once you start reading. It makes you forget everything and become apart of the story
LibraryThing member snash
The story of an extended family centered around the funeral of charming Billy, an alcoholic obsessed with his lost early love. About the disappointments of life, memories, redemption, and love.


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