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.
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.
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).
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.
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?
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.
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.