Lorraine's Reviews > Charming Billy

Charming Billy by Alice McDermott
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Oct 24, 2011

really liked it

On the surface “Charming Billy” appears to be a simple story about Billy Lynch, an alcoholic Irish-American. Of course Billy is different, he’s a romantic. He recites Yeats and he writes notes to people on napkins in bars and actually sends them. He’s so romantic that it is likely that none of his dreams will ever come true. His expectations are so high that he is doomed to suffer.

The story begins at his funeral with his wife Maeve and his family and friends at the dinner following the wake. Billy was charming all right and his life story centered on the girls he fell in love with one summer, Eva, whom he wanted to marry. She went back to Ireland and he sent her $500 to return, but never heard from her. She keeps the $500 to start a business, gets married and has four kids. Because of a lie told him by his cousin Dennis, he thinks she died. It’s not until years later when he goes to Ireland that he discovers the lie.

The narrator of the story is the daughter of Billy’s brother-like cousin Dennis. She wants to tell this story it seems not only for her family’s sake, but for her own sake. What is this Irish-consciousness, the extended Irish-American family and this romance about “the drink” that means so much to her community. Some see it for what it is: “Billy would have had the disease whether he married the Irish girl or Maeve, whether he’d had kids or not…Every alcoholic’s life is pretty much the same,” his sister says. Others see it mystically. Billy’s need to go to Ireland to cure his disease. Billy’s sorrow because of his lost love. Billy’s wife Maeve who took care of her alcoholic father and then took care of Billy throughout their marriage.

The narrator (Miss Lynch, no first name) seems to have escaped from it all—the Irishness, but in a sense she’s deeply a part of it. It’s a James Joyce kind of novel, but simpler to understand, perhaps. There’s a lot of pain underlying this story—pain caused from not only alcoholism but fictionalizing families and their stories. I like the story and I admire McDermott’s precise style of writing, but I felt sad at the end because it seems no on was redeemed.
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