Charming Billy (1998), Alice McDermott's most celebrated novel, focuses on the tragic life of Billy Lynch, an Irish American who comes of age in New York City during the later part of the twentieth century. It opens at his funeral where several of his friends and relatives gather to recall Billy's life within his tight-knit Irish Catholic, Queens community. As they come to offer support to his longsuffering widow Maeve, they celebrate his poetic, gentle soul and mourn his descent into the alcoholism that eventually killed him.
As McDermott weaves together the sometimes contradictory stories from those who have come to remember Billy, she presents a heartbreaking portrait of unrequited love and a masterful depiction of an Irish community that revels in its traditions and remains loyal to its members. In her chronicle of Billy's attempts to realize his dreams and the tragic result of his failures, she creates a poignant tale of love and loss and the tension between romantic illusions and reality.
Alice McDermott was born on June 27, 1953 to Mildred Lynch McDermott and William J. McDermott, who, like Billy in Charming Billy, worked for Con Edison. Alice was raised in a middle-class Irish Catholic family in the suburbs of Long Island, New York. She attended elementary school at St. Boniface in Elmont, Long Island, and high school at Sacred Heart Academy in Hempstead, both typical Irish Catholic schools run by the church. Though she never knew her grandparents since both of her parents had been orphaned, her family became a part of the Irish Catholic community in suburban Long Island. Many of her novels reflect her upbringing there during the 1950s and 1960s.
When McDermott was young, she began developing her talent as a writer by writing stories in a notebook. These stories served as self-expression and compensation for her being overshadowed by two outspoken older brothers. After graduating high school in 1971, McDermott attended the State University of New York (SUNY) at Oswego. Her parents were not supportive of her desire to be a writer, since they worried that she might struggle financially. She did, however, find encouragement from her instructors at SUNY, especially from her first mentor Paul Briand, who taught her to be a disciplined writer.
McDermott graduated with a bachelor of arts degree from Oswego in 1975 and moved to New York City where she worked briefly as a clerk-typist for Vantage Press, a job that supplied material and inspiration for her first novel, A Bigamist's Daughter, published in the early 1980s. After New York, McDermott pursued a master's degree in fiction writing at the University of New Hampshire. There, she met her second mentor, Mark Smith, who built her confidence in her writing and encouraged her to start sending out her manuscripts for publication.
By 1979, McDermott had completed her master's degree and had her first short story, "Simple Truth," published in Ms. magazine. During this time, she also worked as a lecturer and taught English at the University of New Hampshire. A romance developed there with a research neuroscientist named David Armstrong, whom she married on June 16, 1979.
A Bigamist's Daughter (1982), which focuses on the past's influence on the present, received decent reviews. After this first novel, McDermott and her husband moved to La Jolla, California, where she briefly taught at the University of California. Her second novel, That Night (1987), received rave reviews and was a finalist for the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, the PEN/Faulkner Award, and the Los Angeles Times Book Award. After moving back to the East Coast with her husband, McDermott again became a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction with her next novel, At Weddings and Wakes (1993).
Charming Billy, published in 1998, was her most popular novel and won her the most acclaim. It won the 1998 National Book Award and spent several weeks on The New York Times best-seller list. As of 2005, McDermott and her family live in Bethesda, Maryland, where she manages to balance a life of raising children, engaging in volunteer work, teaching, and writing.
Charming Billy spans three generations of Irish Americans living in Queens, New York, from World War II to the end of the twentieth century. The narrator, whose first name is not given, is the grown daughter of Billy's best friend and cousin, Dennis. She has come home to support her father after Billy is found dying in the street. She begins the story at a funeral party in the Bronx, in 1982, where forty-seven friends and relatives have gathered to mourn and to reminisce about Billy Lynch.
Dennis takes charge of the arrangements for Maeve, Billy's widow, making sure that the party runs smoothly. The narrator begins her description of Billy, an alcoholic who greatly taxed those who loved him, which includes everyone in the room. At this point, Dennis's daughter shares the narrative with various members of the party, who offer their personal memories of Billy.
Their talk turns to Eva, the girl whom Billy loved first and hoped to marry. He met her one summer on Long Island after he and Dennis returned from the war. Eva had been helping her sister Mary with her duties as a nanny for a wealthy family on the island. At the end of the summer, Eva went back to Ireland with Billy's ring to wait for him to have enough money to send for her. After taking on a second job, Billy sent $500 to her. Kate, Billy's sister, remembers that Mary called Dennis soon after and told him that Eva had died of pneumonia, which Dennis then relayed to Billy. It was a blow that the relatives thought he would never endure.
Eventually, he met and married Maeve, whom many thought would be his salvation, but the narrator notes that she "was only a faint consolation, a futile attempt to mend an irreparably broken heart. A moment's grace, a flash of optimism, not enough for a lifetime." They then discuss and argue about his drinking, which increased over the years into full-fledged alcoholism. His sister Rosemary insists alcoholism is a disease and so was not a result of his weakness, but Dan Lynch argues that he would not have drunk himself to death if Eva had not died, noting that Billy had told him "that every year was a weight on his shoulders."
At the end of the party, Dennis admits to his daughter, "Here's the most pathetic part of all. Eva never died. It was a lie." He then takes over the narrative to tell Billy's story, moving back and forth from past to present. He explains that what Mary had actually told him was that Eva had married her hometown sweetheart and kept Billy's money to make a down payment on a gas station. Dennis, fearing that Billy would be devastated by that news, determined that it would be easier for him to think that she died than to know she rejected him for another man.
Dennis tells his daughter that Billy found out that he had lied when Billy decided to make a trip in 1975 to Ireland, where he found Eva married with four children. He admits to her, "it's a bad business. A lie like that," and notes that neither he nor Billy ever told anyone the truth about Eva. Dennis then describes how hard it was for him when his wife died.
Dennis's daughter takes over the narrative, explaining that the Long Island house where Dennis and Billy first met Eva and Mary had been owned by Mr. Holtzman, her grandmother's second husband. She describes her grandmother in her father's words, "the most unsentimental woman he had ever known or heard of," with a single-minded devotion to the truth. Yet, she had convinced Dennis to try to bring Billy out to the Long Island house again, sure that the experience would help him get over Eva.
The narrator moves back and forth in time, filling in bits of Billy's story as it was connected to the Long Island house. She explains that when Billy came back from his trip to Ireland, he came to the house and told Dennis that he saw Eva there. The narrator then goes back to the time when Billy met Eva, noting that he fell in love with her immediately. His natural ability with children helped him impress her as he picked up one of the children in her charge who was crying and calmed him.
Eva became part of his vision of Long Island, representing to him a "golden future," an Eden. As the narrator recreates her version of Billy's proposal to Eva, she suggests that Eva was reluctant to promise to return to the United States, but Billy kept insisting that he would earn enough money to bring her entire family over as well.
- An audio version of the novel read by Roses Prichard is available as of 2005 from Books on Tape.
The narrator then begins a long story of her grandmother's life, including her need to find something better for herself than the hard lives many Irish immigrants had found in America. Her grandfather, Daniel, had fallen in love with her grandmother, Sheila, in much the same way as Billy had with Eva—immediately. Sheila agreed to marry Daniel because he adored her and because he would be able to provide her with her own home.
Back in the present, Dennis tells his daughter that he got Mr. Holtzman to advance Billy the money to send Eva because it was taking Billy too long to save it. He admits that he got caught up in Billy's vision of the future and so decided then that when Billy married Eva, he would marry her sister Mary. Soon after, Mary told Dennis that Eva had married her childhood sweetheart in Ireland, and Dennis later broke off his relationship with Mary.
During this period, Maeve had summoned up the courage to go into Holtzman's shoe store, where Billy had been working to earn the money for Eva. Maeve had fallen in love with him. Billy responded sympathetically to Maeve, who had lost her mother when she was eight, and eventually the two married. The narrator describes the difficult life Maeve had lived, tending her alcoholic father and then later, taking care of Billy as his own alcoholism slowly destroyed him.
The narrator then returns to the present, as Maeve and some of those who had attended the funeral tell sad and humorous stories about Billy as they sit with her at her home. The narrator imagines how difficult it must have been for Billy to live with "the disappointment that lingered at his heart's core" all those years after he lost Eva, and how he drank to forget that disappointment.
The narrator notes how hard it was for Maeve to take care of him and the many nights she had to call Dennis for help in picking Billy up off the floor and getting him up to bed. In the present, Dan and Dennis discuss Billy's character and assess his relationship with Maeve. Dennis remembers the sorrow he felt over the death of his own wife.
Dennis then relates the details Billy told him about his meeting with Eva and he and his daughter try to evaluate Billy's life. The narrator closes with a brief description of meeting her husband, the son of Holtzman's boarder at the Long Island house, and notes that her father eventually married Maeve. After trying to assess her father's and Billy's lives, she closes with an assertion that what is real and what is imagined does not make, "when you [get] right down to it, any difference at all."
Mr. Holtzman is Dennis's stepfather and Sheila's second husband. He adores Sheila and is a good provider for her, but he is stingy to others, always denying that he has much money, even though his shoe business is quite profitable. He asks Dennis and Billy to fix up his Long Beach house, where Billy meets Eva, and later, under Dennis's urging, agrees to lend the $500 Billy wants to bring Eva back to the United States.
Billy is the focus of the novel as his friends and relatives gather at his funeral to mourn him and to try to understand what led him to drink himself to death. While they all show great loyalty and sympathy for his memory, the narrator notes that Billy 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" of all of them.
His friends and relatives, however, focus primarily on their fond memories of Billy: his loyalty, his perseverance, his kindness, and his poetic soul, displayed in the poetry he would recite by memory and his romanticism, which, McDermott suggests, along with his trusting nature, eventually destroyed him.
Billy charmed people with his affectionate nature and his ability "to find whomever he was talking to bright and witty and better than most." He drew out others' charm "with his own great expectations or simply imagined it, whole cloth." Billy had a "need to keep in touch, to keep talking, to be called by name when he entered the crowded barroom, slapped on the back." Yet, he had "half the life taken out of him" when Eva died. Dennis concludes, "for all the love he'd poured out for friends and family for all the years that he lived, he was never … loved sufficiently in return," at least not by Eva "whose love he most sought."
Daniel Lynch, Dennis's father, has a similar personality to that of Billy, except exaggerated. The narrator notes that from the moment Sheila married him, her home was not her own. He opened it to anyone who had emigrated from Ireland and needed a place to stay. Daniel "had bankrupted himself and estranged his wife and filled their tiny apartment with far-flung relatives from the other side: simply to know this power, this expansiveness" of giving to others something that they desperately needed.
Danny Lynch, another cousin, offers opinions about Billy at the funeral that often provide an alternate view of him. When Rosemary insists, for example, that Billy's alcoholism was caused by genetics and that he would have drunk himself to death even if he had not had his heart broken by Eva, Danny contradicts her, noting how heavy the burden of unrequited love was for Billy.
Dennis Lynch is Billy's cousin and was his best friend. Ironically, he may have destroyed Billy by lying to him about what happened to Eva. When Dennis tells him that Eva died of pneumonia instead of running off with a childhood sweetheart, he helps Billy perpetuate his romantic vision of her and the sense that destiny had cheated him. Dennis tells Billy the lie because of his desire to protect his friend, but he does not think carefully about his inability to recognize reality.
Dennis helps his daughter put the pieces of Billy's story together in an effort to get as accurate a portrait as possible, and also, most likely, to try to assuage his own guilt about telling the lie. He tries to get a clear vision of Billy, but his view inevitably becomes subjective. Dennis admits that he must at times also believe in a romantic vision of reality, which makes the hardships of life so much easier to endure. The narrator concludes that Dennis's and Billy's faith "was no less keen than their suspicion that in the end they might be proven wrong. And their certainty that they would continue to believe anyway."
Kate Lynch, Billy's older sister "whose memory had already proven keen," provides yet another view of her brother. She also offers her opinion of Eva, which contradicts Billy's vision of her.
Maeve, Billy's wife, was a homebody, "a plain girl, but determined," which she proves when she decides that she wants to marry Billy. In an effort to see him as much as possible, she finds excuses to return to Holtzman's shoe store where he works, at one point, throwing her father's shoe away so they would have to make the trip. Her plainness had honesty to it, "[a] kind of beauty that was not a transformation of her simple features but an assertion of them, an insistence that they were no more than what they appeared."
She displays endurance, patience, and loyalty both to her father and then to Billy as the two succumbed to the devastation of alcoholism. She was typical of her generation "wedded to the widowed father." Two important factors in her life—her mother dying when Maeve was young and growing up with a policeman for a father—had given her "some sense early on of the precariousness of life, the risk taken by simply walking out the apart ment door."
The relatives suggest that if she did not have her father to take care of, she would have become a nun. Dennis and Dan also doubt if she would "have known what to do with a sober man, with the full force of the affection of a sober man who'd never loved another." McDermott does not make it clear whether Maeve was "Billy's salvation, or at least his second chance" or whether no one could have saved Billy from self-destruction.
Rosemary Lynch, Billy's sister, is sympathetic to Maeve and determined that Billy's destiny was shaped by his genetic propensity for alcoholism.
Sheila Lynch, Dennis's mother, provides a counter to Billy's romanticism in the novel. She married both of her husbands not for love, but for financial security and, especially, a home of her own. According to Dennis's father, Sheila was "the most unsentimental woman he had ever known or ever heard of." The narrator notes that "she was a Geiger counter for insincerity, phoniness, half-truths."
Dennis was reluctant to bring Billy home after he fell in love with Eva since his mother "sought truth so single-mindedly that under her steady gaze exaggeration, self-delusion, bravado simply dried up and blew away, as did hope, nonsense, and any ungrounded giddiness." Her devotion to logic and clear thinking prompted the community to turn to her for advice when she got older. Yet, she also displayed a softer side as she aged, at one point insisting that Dennis take Billy back to Long Island to help him get over Eva.
The narrator, whose first name is never given, returns to Queens to help her father, Dennis Lynch, grieve for his best friend. As she listens to his and others' stories of Billy, she tries to gain an objective vision of the man, which is made easier by both her link to the family and her outsider status. She becomes McDermott's voice as she walks the thin line between illusion and reality that is at the heart of Billy's story. At the end of the book, she reveals that she has married the son of Holtzman's Long Island tenant.
The Development of Love
Billy's love for Eva develops out of his romanticized vision of the world. Billy has the soul of a poet, often reciting poems by Yeats and jot ting down notes to his friends about extraordinary things he has seen or qualities in them that he appreciates. Dennis notes that Billy had "a tremendous willingness to find whomever he was talking to bright and witty and better than most." This eagerness to see the beauty around him prompts him to fall in love with Eva on a beach in Long Island, which had become a magical place for him. He fell in love with her "before she had even come clearly into his view" and then he promptly fell in love with a vision of his future, which, he was certain would be Edenic.
Maeve falls in love with Billy for quite a different reason. She has no romantic visions of him and their life together, knowing what it is like to live with an alcoholic. Dan Lynch concludes that Maeve wanted Billy because he fit the pattern of her life. She had become comfortable in her role as caregiver and supporter in her relationship with her father and recognized that she could fulfill the same role with Billy. Put together, these two patterns of falling in love suggest that the initial attraction can be generated by what a person seeks idealistically or, by contrast, by a person's attraction to the known and familiar, even when those are not necessarily positive.
Both Billy and Maeve suffer the painful consequences of unrequited love. While at one point, Billy jokes to Eva that their story is right out of Romeo and Juliet, he cannot deny the heartache that he has endured as his love for her became a weight on his shoulders that drove him to drink himself to death. Dennis concludes that "Billy wanted too much," but Billy's romantic vision of Eva compelled him to yearn for nothing less. on them.
Unlike Billy, Maeve quietly accepted the fact that he did not truly love her. She gave up her life for him, Dennis notes, in order to support his dream, hoping "the world would somehow turn out to be just the way he believed it to be." She hoped that "he'd turn out to be right in the end, with all his hanging on to the past. All his loyalty to the dead." When his dream eventually destroyed him, his death almost destroyed her as well.
Topics for Further Study
- Some reviewers have noted a similarity between Jay Gatsby and Billy Lynch. Read The Great Gatsby (1925) and then write an essay comparing and contrasting Gatsby and Billy, their dreams, and the historical/cultural influences on them.
- Investigate alcoholism and in a PowerPoint presentation, note its causes and treatment.
- Maeve's story is presented from Dennis's and Dennis's daughter's point of view. Rewrite the scene at Maeve's house after the funeral luncheon from her point of view.
- If you were to provide illustrations for the novel, what would you depict? Compose a drawing or painting that represents an important element of Billy's story.
Loyalty and Support
Many other characters in the novel besides Maeve offered Billy their loyalty and support. Those who gather at his funeral spend their time praising Billy and his gentle humility and kindness as they forgive his destructive behavior. His drunkenness often caused them to banish him until he sobered up, but ultimately, they all did what they could to ease his pain. Yet, not all efforts to help Billy ended positively. Dennis's inability to see his relative and best friend suffer led to the lie that may have destroyed Billy. Maeve's quiet acceptance of his alcoholism also may have ultimately encouraged his destructive impulses.
The novel presents an intricate narrative design made up of stories told by friends and relatives who have come together to remember charming Billy. Rand Richards Cooper writes that this is "a stealthily ambitious work" in its "surprising experiments in form and voice." These "elusive" storytellers not only add pieces to Billy's story; they also, Cooper notes, "stand looking back through the one-way window of assimilation at the lives their parents and grandparents lived." At times, they tell separate stories, and at other times they "compress their talk into a group monologue." Interspersed with these monologues are moments of thoughtful reflection, which Cooper deems to be a reflection of McDermott's "elegiac impulse."
The central narrator is Dennis's daughter, who has come home to Queens to help her father grieve for his dear friend. She is connected to the family enough to understand all of the lives that have been linked by Billy, but she is distant enough to provide a more objective perspective on these resonant and nostalgic tales. She gets many of the details of Billy's story from her father, however, who expresses his view of Billy, which complicates her task. She must fill in the blanks herself, by sifting through the multiple narratives she hears at the funeral in order to present a portrait of Billy that is as accurate as possible.
The world experienced a decade of aggression in the 1930s that culminated in World War II (1939–45). This global conflict resulted from the rise of totalitarian regimes in Germany, Italy, and Japan. These militaristic regimes rose to power as a result of the Great Depression experienced by most of the world in the early 1930s and from the conditions created by the peace settlements following World War I, specifically the Treaty of Versailles which severely limited Germany and held it responsible of huge debts incurred by World War I. The dictatorship established in each of these three countries encouraged expansion into neighboring countries. In Germany Adolf Hitler strengthened the army during the 1930s with the clear intention of gaining control of other European countries.
In 1936 Benito Mussolini's Italian troops took Ethiopia. From 1936 to 1939 Spain was engaged in civil war involving Francisco Franco's fascist army, aided by Germany and Italy. In March 1938 Germany annexed Austria and in March 1939 occupied Czechoslovakia. Italy took Albania in April 1939. One week after Nazi Germany and the U.S.S.R. signed the Treaty of Nonaggression, on September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland. World War II officially began when, on September 3, 1939, Great Britain and France declared war on Germany after a German U-boat sank the British ship Athenia off the coast of Ireland. Another British ship, Courageous, was sunk on September 19. All members of the British Commonwealth, except Ireland, soon joined Britain and France in their declaration of war.
On December 7, 1941, Japan attacked the U.S. naval base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. As a result of the four-hour attack, approximately 2,400 Americans died and 1,300 were wounded. The next day, the United States declared war on Japan. On December 11, 1941, the United States declared war on Germany and Italy after receiving a declaration of war from the two countries. The total number of European casualties by the end of the war in 1945 was approximately 40,000,000. Over 400,000 Americans died.
Thousands of Irish men and women immigrated to the United States during the nineteenth century to escape poverty and famine of their native land. The United States became a dream for these people who fled these hardships along with English oppression as they packed themselves tightly into what were referred to as coffin ships due to the hostile living conditions on board, heading for a new home. Initially, their experience of being in the States, however, did not live up to their vision of the good life. Most settled in their arrival ports and were soon herded into the city's tenement sections, from which they had little chance of escape. Each major city, including New York, had its Irish or shantytown where, due to their poverty and prejudice against them, the Irish lived in shacks. Ridiculed for their dress and their accents and blamed for increases in the crime rate, these foreigners were often greeted with "No Irish Need Apply" signs when they looked for employment.
During the twentieth century, however, standards of living improved for Irish immigrants as their children adapted to the new world. Sons born in the United States became plumbers, policemen, and carpenters and settled with their families along the East Coast, especially in Boston and New York. Later, third and fourth generation American-born and educated Irish entered politics and other white-collar professions.
Reviews of the novel have been overwhelmingly positive. Rand Richards Cooper in his article for Commonweal considers Charming Billy to be McDermott's "most challenging [novel] to date" and"incorrigibly digressive, brash with time, intricately layered and crammed full of life."
One of the most highly lauded qualities of the novel is McDermott's style. Cooper notes her narrative expertise when he writes: "The Christian echo of a redemptive, sacrificial quality to Billy's passion could be heavy-handed. But McDermott guards against bathos by making those mourners who explicitly construe Billy as a Christ figure themselves seem heavy-handed." A reviewer for Publishers Weekly insists that this "poignant and ironic story" is filled "with dialogue so precise that a word or two conjures a complex relationship." The review concludes: "McDermott's compassionate candor about the demands of faith and the realities of living brings an emotional resonance to her seamlessly told, exquisitely nuanced tale."
Cooper also praises the novel's realism: "McDermott isn't content merely to describe a texture of consciousness; she wants to create it, taking the density of Irish Catholic working-class family life, and pressing it into the very molecules of the novel." Starr E. Smith in Library Journal adds that the "series of vividly drawn episodes" provide the reader with "an accessible narrative distinguished by strong characterizations and a marked sense of place." In his review for American Libraries, Bill Ott determines the novel to be "a heartbreaking story" and notes its accurate depiction of alcoholism. "For a tippler," Ott insists, "the line between charming and pathetic is a thin one. McDermott's genius is that she straddles that line beautifully."
Father John Molyneux, writing for U.S. Catholic, finds the novel's themes inspirational: "As the mourners form Billy's tragic story, it becomes a gentle homage to all the lives in their community fractured by grief, shattered by secrets, and sustained by the simple dream of love." Molyneux suggests that through the novel, McDermott challenges "us to recognize the goodness and decency of our family members without sentimentalizing them."
Perkins is a professor of American and English literature and film. In this essay, Perkins examines the tensions between illusion and reality in the novel.
Alice McDermott's celebrated novel, Charming Billy opens at a funeral luncheon, where forty-seven friends and relatives gather to mourn and to reminisce about Billy Lynch in a Bronx restaurant that could have been taken from a scene in an Irish play by John Millington Synge. The setting, however, is not the only touch of the Irish in the novel. The particular sensibility that Alice McDermott infuses throughout Charming Billy reflects what John Millington Synge calls in his preface to his play, The Playboy of the Western World, a "popular [Irish] imagination that is fiery and magnificent, and tender." The Irish penchant for employing the imagination in the telling of stories becomes the focus of the novel as McDermott explores the lure of the creative rendering of experience as well as its inevitable clash with reality.
As Billy's friends and relatives gather together at his funeral, each of them feels compelled to tell"the story of his life, or the story they would begin to re-create for him this afternoon." Their versions often conflict with each other, as they focus on love and loss, delusion, and reality. Thrown out of focus by time and private agendas, their colorful stories ask a central question that examines the book's title. Was Billy a charming personality or is the portrait that is created a charming recreation of him? McDermott delineates this tension between imagination and reality when, at the end of the first chapter, after she has given voice to several of these stories, she ends with the truth about the central lie of the book—Eva, the love of Billy's life, never died.
Rand Richards Cooper in his article for Commonweal writes: "McDermott frames Billy's life story in ironies, stinting neither the cost nor the complexity of his romanticism." Billy's cousin, Dennis reveals the irony that sets the tone for the entire book when he tells the others about his first view of Billy's corpse. He notes that Billy's face was "bloated to twice its size and his skin was [so] dark brown" from alcoholism that Dennis could not recognize him at first, insisting when he saw the body, "But this is a colored man." This amalgam of illusion and reality begins the novel's examination of Billy and its illustration of the difficulties inherent in the attempt to gain an objective view of reality.
Much of the talk at the funeral focuses on Billy's drinking and its cause. The guests argue over whether Billy's alcoholism was inevitable, springing from an Irish propensity for drink or from his tragic love for Eva. Dennis and his daughter, who as the central narrator tries to weave together all of the stories about Billy into an accurate portrait of him, wrestle with a more complex issue concerning Billy's love for Eva. Was Billy destroyed by Eva's failure to return from Ireland or by Dennis's lie about her having died? Would Billy have been able to accept Eva's rejection more readily than her untimely demise? As Dennis and his daughter struggle to find answers to these questions, they explore the complex nature of illusion and truth and ultimately the vagaries of human destiny.
The question about the effect of the lie becomes central as McDermott dismisses the insistence that Billy's fate was determined by his heritage. Billy's sister Rosemary argues that "Billy would have had the disease whether he married the Irish girl or Maeve," concluding "[e]very alcoholic's life is pretty much the same." Cooper notes, however, that those characters such as Rosemary who blame genetics "come off as pinched and zealous proponents of our era's mistaken urge to collapse tragedy into (mere) pathology: a reductively pragmatic approach, McDermott clearly believes, to the mysteries of human existence."
McDermott adds a nice ironic touch to the discussion the members of the funeral party have of Billy's drinking when she notes the connection between "the drinks in their hands and the drink that had killed him." Yet, she concludes, the enjoyment of the drinks is redeemed "in the company of old friends, from the miserable thing that a drink had become in his life." The gathering of these friends helps redeem "the affection they had felt for him, once torn apart by his willfulness, his indifference, making something worthwhile of it, something valuable that had been well spent, after all." This then becomes the motive of McDermott's storytellers, to discover that valuable essence to Billy, which will prove that his time and theirs "had been well spent, after all."
The portrait that emerges most clearly of Billy in the narrative is that of a fragile romantic, ultimately destroyed by his unrequited love for a young Irish girl, which he claimed to his cousin Dan, was every year, every hour "a weight on his shoulders." Dennis explains to his daughter that he decided to lie about Eva's fate to try to ease Billy's suffering, claiming, "better he be brokenhearted than trailed all the rest of his life by a sense of his own foolishness." Yet, Dennis remains conflicted about what he has done. Noting the fine line between illusion and reality that was walked by his community, he notes the "audacious, outlandish" nature of the lie and concludes that "the workaday world, the world without illusion (except Church-sanctioned) or nonsense (except alcohol-bred)," the world of the Irish Catholics in Queens, "didn't much abide audacious and outlandish. Not for long, anyway."
Dennis's lie caused Billy to maintain a romantic vision of Eva, one that was constructed by him from the first moment he met her. While the relatives at the funeral cannot agree on whether she was beautiful, and his sister Kate claims that she was "a little chubby," to Billy, she was an angel. The first time he saw her, his nearsightedness caused him to see "her as a mirage of smeared color … a mirage that perhaps only wild hope and great imagination could form into a solid woman." He fell in love with her "before she had even come clearly into his view." That afternoon "he fell in love with the rest of his life," which he envisioned now as a "golden future," an "Eden." Billy could not recognize that "adrift in the same world that held their fine future there was accident and disappointment, a sickening sense of false hope and false promise that required all of God's grace tokeep at bay."
McDermott refuses to provide a clear, objective portrait of Billy, including any answers concerning the consequences of his devotion to his romanticized image of Eva. Dennis recognized the need to devote oneself to an imaginative vision of reality when he gave Billy the money to send for Eva. He understood then "what Billy's fine dream, Billy's faith, was going to come to. But he also saw, in his own … romantic heart, that its consummation would become a small redemption for them all." Yet later, Dennis insists that it was better for Billy to discover the truth about Eva so that he "didn't go through his whole life deceived about it. Didn't die thinking about some lovely reunion in the sweet hereafter." Ultimately, McDermott leaves open the question of whether the truth or the illusion about Eva caused Billy to drink himself to death.
McDermott also refuses to take a definitive stance on the effect that Maeve had on Billy's life. At one point, the narrator insists that "her presence in the shoe store was Billy's salvation, or at least his second chance," but by the end of the paragraph, after an attempt to analyze whether the clearly plain Maeve had perhaps a "certain beauty," she concludes that "Maeve was only a faint consolation, a futile attempt to mend an irreparably broken heart. A moment's grace, a flash of optimism, not enough for a lifetime."
The narrator does, however, come to some conclusions. She recognizes the human capacity to believe and to be deceived, and determines, "you can't have one without the other, each one side of the other." In her final assessment of Billy and ultimately of human nature, she concludes that, as with all those gathered together to remember Billy, their faith "was no less keen than their suspicion that in the end they might be proven wrong. And their certainty that they would continue to believe anyway." Billy becomes for them an almost mythical emblem of human frailty as well as a courageous romantic who refused to give up his dreams.
In Charming Billy, McDermott deftly illuminates the interpretive gifts of the Irish and the subsequent tension they can produce between imagination and truth. Ultimately, the lure of the dream cannot be reconciled with objective reality, yet, she suggests, we can recognize its ephemeral nature and still persist in reaching out for it, as if "what was actual, as opposed to what was imagined, as opposed to what was believed, made, when you got right down to it, any difference at all."
Source: Wendy Perkins, Critical Essay on Charming Billy, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.
Mary Paniccia Carden
In the following essay excerpt, Carden explores how McDermott treats "the romance plot's function in the formation of histories and identities" in Charming Billy.
What Do I Read Next?
- John Millington Synge's 1907 play The Playboy of the Western World, which addresses the theme of illusion and reality, focuses on the reception given to Christy Mahon, as he wanders into a small Irish village, declaring that he has just murdered his father.
- Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes, published in 1996, is an award-winning novel that traces the lives of a poor family in Ireland headed by an alcoholic father.
- McDermott's A Bigamist's Daughter (1982) focuses on the impact of the past on the present.
- In Irish America (2001), Maureen Dezell chronicles Irish Americans' lives from the 1840s to the beginning of the twenty-first century.
Charming Billy centers in the conflicted imbrication of romance and anti-romance, [and] its multiple interpretations of romance-as-history produce a complex set of responses. Narrated by the unnamed daughter of Dennis Lynch, the title character's cousin and closest friend, the novel begins at Billy Lynch's funeral luncheon. Charming Billy moves between 1945 and 1991, as the narrator explores the story of Billy's tragic romance and the ways it has defined not only a common Irish past but also future American generations. Gathered in"a small bar-and-grill" located in the Bronx, which "might have been a pub in rural Ireland." The mourners struggle with the meaning of Billy's life and death. He had been an alcoholic who "had, at some point, ripped apart, plowed through … 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." In order to "mak[e] something worthwhile" of their investment of affection and faith in him, they must make "something worthwhile" of his romantic story, and by extension of their own "li[ves] of love." According to Dennis Lynch's adult daughter, "You could not redeem Billy's life, redeem your own relentless affection for him, without saying at some point,'There was that girl.' "
Billy meets Eva, "the Irish girl," on Long Island as he and Dennis enjoy their post-World War II "hiatus … between their lives as they were and whatever it was their lives were to become," repairing a cottage belonging to Mr. Holtzman, the man Dennis's mother married after his father's death. In Charming Billy, the Long Island house functions as a nexus of competing meanings around love. Dennis's mother is capable of "deflat[ing] the most romantic notion with a single word." She has "no patience for poetry, Broadway musicals, presidential politics, or the pomp of her religion … under her steady gaze exaggeration, self-delusion, bravado simply dried up and blew away, as did hope, nonsense, and any ungrounded giddiness." To her the cottage represents stability, not romance; to Dennis and Billy it stands for the perfect union of the two. Having "been here, just like this, all the while [they] had been locked in the adventure and tedium of the war," it represents a bridge to prewar normality and to the security of love and family.
At the beach, the cousins encounter two Irish au pairs; Dennis lays immediate claim to Mary, leaving her sister Eva for Billy. Billy "fall[s] in love" with her "before she had even come clearly into his view." At their next meeting he falls "in love with the rest of his life, and that was better still." It seems to him that like the cottage, "this golden future … had been part of the same life he'd been living all along." Unable to see Eva "clearly," Billy imagines her as a kind of fetish of an extended Irish American history. In this space of upper-class privilege, Billy's "golden future" extends the possibilities of his working-class fathers, combining continuing immigration from Ireland with movement up the American social ladder. Billy starts toward this future by asking Eva to stay in the United States. She, however, feels impelled to return to her family in Ireland, prompting Billy's offer to bring them over, as well:
"That's how my father's family did it. Dennis's father came over first and then brought over his six brothers and his sister, and Lord knows how many more."
… "I'll send for you," he told her…. "as soon as I save the money I'll send for you. I'll bring you back. Can I do that?"
She shook her head only slightly and … whispered, "There's still my family."
"I'll send for them, too," he said, and because he heard her laugh a little, perhaps saw her smile, he added, laughing as well, "I'll send for them all, your parents and your sisters and the next-door neighbors if you want me to. Does your town have a pastor—I'll send for him. A milkman? Him too…. Is there a baker you're particularly fond of? Any nuns? Cousins? We'll bring them over. We'll bring them all over."
This, he believes, is "what his life had held for him all along"; successful romance with "the Irish girl" would reestablish continuity by replicating his family's model for "creating a future." Like At Weddings and Wakes, Charming Billy presents romantic love imbricated with the hopefulness of immigrant dreams and the possibilities of America, a romantic love that stands as metaphor for the historical processes that create Irish Americans.
But Billy receives word that Eva has died of pneumonia in Ireland and later marries the "plain" Maeve, a union that seems "a futile attempt to mend an irreparably broken heart. A moment's grace, a flash of optimism, not enough for a lifetime." Billy's cousin and drinking partner, Dan Lynch, believes that had Eva lived, the family would be gathered to evaluate "'a different life.'" While Dan figures Billy's alcoholism in direct proportion to his loss, Billy's sister Rosemary points to the many alcoholic members of the extended Lynch family and argues that alcoholism "'isn't a decision, it's a disease, and Billy would have had the disease whether he married the Irish girl or Maeve.'" Her assertion that " 'every alcoholic's life is pretty much the same'" opposes Dan's view of Billy's romantic agency, his manly loyalty to one true thing.
While Rosemary focuses on Billy's "genetic predisposition" to alcoholism, to a fate he carried "in his genes," Dan insists "'Say he was too loyal. Say he was disappointed. Say he made way too much of the Irish girl…. But give him some credit … for having a hand in his own fate. Don't say it was a disease that blindsided him and wiped out everything he was.'" This exchange encapsulates the narrative conflict between romance and anti-romance, consent and descent, random fate and truths there all along. Billy's romantic plan to bring Eva, her family, and most of her village to America recapitulates the process of immigration that his community celebrates as the source of their own lives. His plan has failed, but his loyalty upholds the values and priorities that produced the Lynch family in America. While At Weddings and Wakes focuses on immigrant sorrow as outcome of history and model for romance, Charming Billy posits romance as the primary metaphor for the community itself, regardless, to some extent, of outcome.
Billy's romantic immigrant plan encapsulates communal history in its connections to the community's other hero, center of its other privileged romantic narrative—Dennis's father, Daniel Lynch. Continuously importing relatives from Ireland, Daniel replays an immigrant romance that makes him his community's patron "saint" and revered patriarch. When Billy "cri[es] in his beer that he would not have [Eva's] boat fare by summer," Dennis remarks, "'You're more like my father than my father was.'" "'In this family,'" Billy responds,"his glass to his heart, 'you couldn't say a kinder word.'" Even the outwardly cynical Dennis believes "in his own (his own father's) romantic heart" that the "consummation" of Billy's Irish romance "would become a small redemption for them all." Perhaps this desire to redeem the lives constructed by Daniel Lynch's immigrant dream is behind the lie that Dennis tells Billy, a lie that both perpetuates and ends Billy's romance. Eva did not die young, beautiful, and tragic in Ireland. Instead, she marries a "hometown boy" and uses Billy's passage money for a down payment on a gas station. Dennis invents Eva's death because he believes it would be "better" for Billy to be "broken-hearted" than "trailed all the rest of his life by a sense of his own foolishness." His lie preserves the model of masculinity central to the community's Irish American romance with history by preserving the dignity of the would-be patriarch.
The potential redemption Dennis had invested in Billy's successful conjunction of immigration and heterosexual romance occurs at the gaps in Daniel Lynch's story. His father had been a fisher of men, providing new life in a better place, a role that may have "made him Holy Father to a tenement's worth of Irish immigrants but kept his wife and son mostly impoverished and never—what with one wetback mick after another being reeled in from the other side and slapped down on their couch—alone in their own home." Daniel's romanticized status is contradicted by the "dark fairy tale" Sheila Lynch tells. Orphaned and alone, she marries Daniel hoping for security and recognition, but instead finds continuing dislocation in "oneand two-bedroom apartments that also served as permanent way stations for an endless string of penniless Irish immigrants." Sheila wakes on "her second morning as a young bride" to find two such immigrants asleep on the floor and "never had [Daniel's] attention all to herself again." Daniel's primary love interaction is with the new arrivals who provide the rewards and satisfactions of his life; his immigrant romance supersedes their romantic couplehood. Dissenting Daniel's myth, Sheila teaches her son the dangers of romantic illusion "in the same careful and loving way another mother might tell a child that the aspirin was not candy and the laundry bleach not fruit punch." So when Dennis prevents Billy from revealing his "rabid infatuation" to Sheila, he protects not only Billy but also his own investment in Billy's dream, a dream that would renew and repair the romantic narrative disputed by his disappointed mother.
Billy misinterprets Dennis's suppression of the Irish girls, assuming that Dennis feels guilty for having had sex with Mary. Charming Billy continually reminds us that Dennis also had an Irish girl, insistently referencing an anti-romantic counter plot to Billy's story. But even as his experience shadows Billy's deferral of sexual fulfillment in immigrant desire, Dennis is seduced by Billy's "sweet romance." Romance, it seems, is contagious in all its incarnations: after getting Billy the job and loan that will enable him to bring Eva to America sooner rather than later, Dennis "understood for the first time why … his father had bankrupted himself and estranged his wife and filled their tiny apartment with far-flung relatives from the other side simply to know this power, this expansiveness. Simply to be able to say, as he said to Billy that day … 'Here you go.' Here's your life." Caught up in this power, he decides to "give [Mary] a ring on the day Billy married Eva." When Mary summons him unexpectedly, he believes she is pregnant and resolves to "marry her immediately," but also realizes that she represents "a future that he only understood now he never honestly wanted." After she delivers the news of Eva's defection, he ends their relationship. Dennis's failed romance with "Irish Mary" highlights the element of chance in Billy's relationship with Eva (what if Dennis had picked Eva instead?) and illustrates Dennis's ambivalent reception of his father's legacy. Mary stands at/as the start of another potential chain of immigrants, positioning Dennis to continue the work his father began. In the story he tells Billy he banishes her to Ireland, space of dead dreams.
Dennis is "stunned" at the "audacity" of his lie, well aware that "the workaday world, the world without illusion (except Church-sanctioned) or nonsense (except alcohol-bred) that was the world of Irish Catholic Queens New York, didn't much abide audacious and outlandish. Not for long, anyway." But although his lie might seem outrageous, its effect is conservative—it preserves his community's romantic view of its history and adjoins its other ordering narratives. Even Dennis falls back on the view of Billy as a tragic hero of romance; as he tells his daughter the truth after the funeral luncheon, he adds that "'when Billy sets his heart on something there's no changing him. He's loyal. He's got this faith—which is probably why he drinks.'" Dennis, as we have seen, is not alone in this view. In Charming Billy, alcohol, romance, and religion converge on multiple levels.
A reviewer of Charming Billy characterizes Billy as a "priest of romance, a person who gave to earthly love the priest's loyalty to the divine"(LeClair 27). Romance, like religion, necessitates a leap of faith, an assurance of permanence that promises enduring meaning and reward. When Billy kisses Eva for the first time, it "[is] like inhaling the essence of some vague but powerful alcohol" imbued with "the dark flavor of desire … for something he couldn't give a word to—for happiness, sure, for sense, for children—for life itself to be as sweet as certain words could make it seem." Despite the powerful intoxicating effect of love (and gin), he also knows that "adrift in the same world that held their fine future there was accident and disappointment, a sickening sense of false hope and false promise that required all of God's grace to keep at bay." Aware that romance might not be capable of withstanding a cold and random world, Billy seeks the supplement of grace—divine love—as its mirror and affirmation.
As the day of Billy's funeral draws to a close, Dennis's daughter holds a drink (poured symbolically for Billy) and observes that "each sip raised a kind of veil that was both a warmth across the cheeks and a welling in the eyes. A way of seeing, perhaps. Perhaps the very thing that Billy would have found so appealing, had the drink been his." This "way of seeing" alleviates the discordance between faith and disillusionment, between the promise of love and the experience of loss. When Billy drinks, he experiences "the force of his faith … a force he could only glimpse briefly while sober." It becomes "clear and steady and as fully true as the vivid past or the as-yet-unseen but inevitable future…. Drunk, when Billy turned his eyes to heaven, heaven was there." Dan Lynch, who insists on the sanctity of Billy's loyalty to Eva, compares him to a priest who sacrifices all to enter "so fully into his faith that it changes the very fabric of his life." In these interconnected locales of faith, the "way of seeing" offered by alcohol, the hopefulness of grace, and the promise of love keep fear and loneliness at bay by offering the assurance that individual lives matter.
While Billy might appear as a "priest of romance," McDermott and her narrator have one eye fixed on the contradictions of such a position—they come clear to Billy himself during his trip to Ireland to take the pledge. Dressed as a priest in order to carry a friend's license and drive his rental car, he sets out to visit Eva's grave. Instead, he finds himself visiting with Eva in her gas station/lunch room. Thirty years later, their summer on Long Island seems "part of a story now, and as a story, it was nothing any of them had truly lived." But, a "married priest," Billy did "truly live" an illlusion, and his masquerade reflects his competing identities: true to Eva and to Maeve, romantic hero and maudlin drunk, a "priest of romance" face-to-face with his "thirty years of misdirected prayer." His broken romance, it turns out, was not a matter of fate but of choice; Eva chose Ireland. Her enduring shadow-romance with her hometown boy relocates love to the space Billy's community has left behind, throwing the romance of American lives—the foundation of Daniel's myth—into dispute. Marrying, having children, working in her small business, Eva lives a life quite similar to the life Billy offered. For his part, Billy does not stop drinking, does not tell anyone but Dennis about his encounter with his dead love, and does not die hoping to find Eva in "the sweet hereafter," as his community believes. Billy has defined himself through his romantic faith, and dies with the knowledge that he has lived under false assumptions.
These assumptions are never abandoned by his community, despite the almost universal anti-romance which characterizes their lives. Dan Lynch, a reduced version of his namesake, clings to "the story" that he never married because he"was such a connoisseur of beauty and behavior that no flawed wife could have pleased him and no flawless one could have been found." Sheila glories in her marriage of security, viewing Holtzman as "the embodiment of good sense, practicality, relief, the soundest investment she had ever made." When she rents the Long Island cottage, site of Billy and Eva's projected honeymoon, her tenant's marriage falls apart. Dennis believes that "Mr. West would not have left his wife and three sons" if Sheila "had not been there offering a furnished rental at a year-round, reasonable rate." Billy's sister Kate endures years of browbeating from her aspiring-lawyer husband and is now bejeweled and manicured but alone. Bridie "from the old neighborhood" had "a crush on Billy" when she was young, a crush that "everyone" knew about; Billy, however, deflects her unrequited love by insisting that she "would have married Tim Schmidt if he'd lived." But Tim Schmidt died in the war and the man she later married suffers from advanced Alzheimer's disease.
The narrator incorporates these and other stories into her reconstruction of Billy's, positioning ideals of romantic love beside unfulfilled desire, empty promises, and bitter disappointments. Her own parents' romance, she believes, "ran the typical course from early infatuation to serious love to affection occassionally diminished by impatience and disagreement." Their love, she feels, "is a given," but she also believes that "there were months, maybe years, when their love for each other might have disappeared altogether and their lives proceeded only out of habit or the failure to imagine any other alternative." This acknowledgement of the mundane, even tedious, course of love integrates romance into the "nine-to-five" life that, according to Sheila, makes individuals "what [they] really [are]: one of the so many million, just one more." Dennis views "wife children house" as "the extent of his success," and, like his father before him, is "depend[ed] upon" by "scores of friends and relatives." At bottom, this life does not seem substantially different from the future he rejected with "Irish Mary."
But this "good-enough … typical kind of mid-twentieth-century marriage … suddenly blossomed into something else in the year [Claire Lynch] was dying," when the narrator's parents claim "their love, their loyalty to one another" as the source of their lives' fulfillment. As love and loyalty become "no longer a matter of chance or happenstance but a condition of their existence no more voluntary or escapable than the pace of their blood," Dennis and Claire view "their meeting, their courtship, their years raising children, every ordinary day they had spent together" as "merely the running start they had taken to vault this moment. To sail, gracefully and in tandem, across the abyss." Affirming heterosexual union as completeness, their renewed love ameliorates failures, inadequacies, and twists of fate. Here, romance makes something "triumph[ant]" out of ordinary lives, after all.
However, this narrative of successful, satisfying romance, Dennis and his daughter understand, has been belatedly imposed over a sometimes unruly and open disappointing experience. After his wife's death, Dennis could not
convince himself that … the assurance that they had achieved something exclusive, something redemptive in the endurance of their love, had been any more than another well-intentioned deception, another construction, as unbelievable, when you came right down to it, as the spontaneity of a love song in some Broadway musical, the supposedly heartfelt supplication of a well-rehearsed hymn, the bearing any one of Billy's poems … had on the actual way any of us lived from day to day.
He could not convince himself then … that heaven was any more than a well-intentioned deception meant to ease our own sense of foolishness, to ease pain.
Taking stock of his life with Claire, Dennis rejects the romantic symmetry that, like the promise of heaven and his lie to Billy, serves to redeem our standing as just "part of the crowd." Later he recants, telling his daughter that "'it was only a brief loss of faith'" and that he "'believe[s] everything now…. Again.'" "Of course," she notes, "there was no way of telling if he lied."
Even this ambivalent success is withheld from Maeve, whose name, "ironic[ally]," means "intoxicating one." Her childless marriage to Billy seems firmly situated in the realm of anti-romance, only marginal "compensation … for what he had lost." "Without [Billy]," Maeve "would have become a nun," and "having chosen this part," she "stand[s] steadily by as his future was formed for her." She tends to Billy as she had to her alcoholic father, and now holds "in her memory … a thousand and one moments she would never recount, things he had said to her, terrible things he had done, ways she had seen him (toothless, incoherent, half-clothed, bloodied, soiled, weeping) that she couldn't begin to tell." Maeve's sisters-in-law praise her "loyalty," her "patience" and "endurance," but most of the characters view this form of loyalty as anti-romantic.
Dennis's daughter considers the postcard Billy sent Maeve from Long Island after the Ireland trip. The card—a picture of "Home Sweet Home in East Hampton" with the salutation "beautiful friend"—may encode an ironic commentary on the romance associated with the Long Island cottage or a transformation of the anti-romance associated with Maeve, an honoring of other forms of constancy. Possibly, it demonstrates Billy's late acceptance of"yet another life, the one that had been waiting for him all along, even while he'd been busy imagining his life with Eva." Or it might simply represent Billy's tendency toward the poetic. The card encapsulates the contradictions of Billy's life, an uneasy balance between his romantic mythos—represented in his loyalty to Eva—and his prosaic life—represented in his loyalty to Maeve. The "Home Sweet Home" card and its inscription in any case illustrate a powerful component of Billy's charm—his ability to make the unbeautiful beautiful, to narrate his life and the lives of others through poetry and prayer, through the language of love and faith. Despite his ugly death and the anti-romantic realities underlying his love story, Billy remains an attractive romantic figure who embodies his community's view of history.
The narrator cannot determine what her father intends that she understand from their exchanges about Billy, Sheila, and Claire, seeing in him "either the near-triumph of faith or the nearly liberating letting go of it." It is also unclear why she repeats the story, interposed with those of other members of the community, to her husband and children. Dennis's daughter met her husband—a son of the Long Island tenant—in the same area Billy met Eva, but is "spared the memory of a first conversation on the same sunny bay beach." Although she and Mr. West's son disavow the conventions of romantic love, "world-wise, open-eyed, without illusion," they "truly believed" then and "would believe on and off again for the rest of [their] lives" that the "whole history of Holtzman's little house" was, "with [their] own meeting, redeemed." This belief positions their romance as the culmination of the familial and cultural histories that the house represents; this, she implies, is what their lives held for them all along. Because we know virtually nothing about the narrator's love relationship, her references to it add another level of complexity to the ambivalent textual view of romance: her (patchy) love plot both echoes and disavows Billy's and her parents'.
Observing that "the claim to exclusivity in love requires both a certain kind of courage and a good dose of delusion," she articulates history as a series of coincidences: "Irish Mary … would have been happy enough to accept my father's ring … had Eva not chosen to stay in Ireland…. My mother's first fiancé would have married her gladly … if my father hadn't beaten him home." The narrator acknowledges similar factors of chance in her meeting with her husband, but also suggests that at their first greeting their children "must have pricked up their ears." Dennis's daughter evokes a fated romantic couplehood to describe her relationship with her husband, yet notes that "there are a hundred opportunities … for a sense of falsehood to seep in, for all that we imagine as inevitable to become arbitrary, for our history together to reveal itself as only a matter of chance and happenstance, nothing irrepeatable, or irreplaceable, the circumstantial mingling of just one of the so many million with just one more." As she tells her family's stories of (anti)romance, she acknowledges that love, the thing that we imagine distinguishes us from "the so many million," is the very thing that makes us the same.
Remembering and revising the foundational narratives of her Irish American community, the narrator reviews their lessons about love and history, about meaning and truth in human lives, but finds no satisfying answers. Charming Billy concludes with the surprising and (to the narrator, at least) anti-romantic news of Dennis and Maeve's marriage. Dennis and his daughter do not examine this relationship in light of his earlier talk of truth and lies, leaving her to wonder "was it penance … compensation for an old and well-intentioned lie, for the life it had deprived her of? Or was it merely taking care…. A hand held out once again to whoever happened to be nearby." She does not consider that this might be what their lives had held for them all along. While the narrator does not perceive Dennis and Maeve's relationship as an alternate, perhaps more realistic, expression of love, McDermott leaves this possibility open. Nothing that her father's "capacity for sympathy was no less than Billy's for self-denial," the narrator concludes that "their faith … was no less keen than their suspicion that in the end they might be proven wrong. And their certainty that they would continue to believe anyway." Here, the narrator makes an unacknowledged transition, combining the lines of "faith"—romantic and religious—established through the text. Fusing faith in God's redemptive plan with faith in redemptive heterosexual union, she transfers both to a level of mystery that seems to transcend logic, philosophy, even experience.
Dennis says, "'every one of us is living proof … that it's a powerless thing, this loving one another, nothing like what [Billy] had imagined. Except in the way it persists.'" He marries Maeve in the church he attended during the Long Island hiatus, renamed from "St. Philomena's" to "Most Holy Trinity." Philomena had been "tossed out of the canon of saints … because some doubt had arisen about whether or not she had actually lived." Dennis's daughter, however, is not convinced that "in that wide-ranging anthology of stories that was the lives of the saints—that was, as well, my father's faith and Billy's and some part of my own—what was actual, as opposed to what was imagined, as opposed to what was believed, made, when you got right down to it, any difference at all." While the narrator views the romance that structures individual lives and cultural histories as "imagined," even illusory, she also finds that its "actual" truth or falsity does not diminish its force as "belief," as epistemological foundation of the various faiths that give lives meaning.
We have been taught that those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it. In McDermott's novels, as well as in a much of Western literature and culture, romance, which is endlessly repeated, stands as history. McDermott's characters understand their Irish American history as a reflection of the promises of the heterosexual romance plot, which creates the possibilities of their lives. Here, history is romance and romance is history. But this equation labors under the constant pressure of anti-romance, of the failure of heterosexual union to provide the transcendence it promises. The pervasive anti-romance of At Weddings and Wakes denies the power of love to redeem individual lives, while Charming Billy oscillates between hope and disappointment in heterosexual romance as a controlling metaphor. If romance stands as the historical screen upon which we project our lives, then McDermott's narrators have stepped briefly behind it. The screen, once dislodged, does not completely return to its original position, leaving the projection to play into the darkness behind. Fixed and de-centered, present and absent, true and false, romance-as-epistemology evokes yet continually defers solid meaning in individual lives and cultural histories.
McDermott "writes beyond the ending" (Du-Plessis 5) by insisting that romance never resolved itself and that happily-ever-after dreams continue to recede before us. Love—situated as the privileged source of balance and stability for individuals and cultures—produces abiding uncertainty. In At Weddings and Wakes and Charming Billy McDermott melds romance and history into a single story, a story that is both necessary to individual and cultural self-definition and "nothing any of them had truly lived." Her novels center around efforts to sort "truth" from "story," but demonstrate that such a distinction is finally impossible, that those epistemological "truths" which structure our lives are a function of story. And romance is the story we seem to know best.
Source: Mary Paniccia Carden, "Making Love, Making History: (Anti) Romance in Alice McDermott's At Weddings and Charming Billy," in Doubled Plots: Romance and History, edited by Susan Strehle and Mary Paniccia Garden, University Press of Mississippi, 2003, pp. 3-23.
Rand Richards Cooper
In the following essay, Cooper reviews McDermott's previous works, then discusses the "wildly discursive" style of Charming Billy and the reason for the "elusive, anonymous quality of McDermott's narrators."
One of the pleasures of going back to a talented writer's early work is finding the promising failure, the intriguingly bad book.
Alice McDermott's first novel, A Bigamist's Daughter (1982), told the story of a Manhattan vanity press editor romantically involved with one of her luckless writers. Burdened with backstory, plot contrivances, and stilted dialogue ("Some love goes even beyond the lover himself…. Love that's like a spiritual life, like pure faith…."), the novel was a classic case of a writer fighting her own strengths. It was bad in the way some clothing is bad: it just didn't fit. Bent on a single point-of-view protagonist, McDermott restrained a powerful storytelling impulse and ended up making her characters speak her own themes. She used awkward plot moves to steer the novel toward what she really wanted to write about, namely, not her heroine's present but her past—a child's perception of the physical world and the stubborn mysteries of adulthood. A Bigamist's Daughter was ostensibly a smart '80s novel about a woman finding her strength. But trapped inside it was very different book, less breezy and ironic, more lyrical and backward-looking, and far less narratively conventional.
McDermott's subsequent career has been a matter of setting this trapped book free. That Night (1987), a sparkling, swooning evocation of a lost era, related the events of a summer evening in a 1960s Long Island suburb, when a gang of hot-rodding town toughs, attempting to steal away their leader's girlfriend, does battle with the fathers of the neighborhood. The story is told, retrospectively, by a nameless narrator who watched the rumble as a ten-year-old, and whose own adult identity is subordinated to her role as witness to the past—in effect, a stand-in omniscient narrator, telling the story and its ramifications from all angles. The close focus on one event enabled McDermott to range widely through time, and in and out of the various characters as well, creating the novel's blend of tight control with lyrical expansiveness, and giving vent to a sensibility at once rapturous and haunted.
If That Night discovered its author's preoccupations—memory and the world of the child, the character of community, the power of desire, the evanescence and permanence of time, the ironies of fate—At Weddings and Wakes (1992) pushed them further. The novel studies an Irish-Catholic family in New York, circa 1960, through the eyes of two girls and a boy brought on weekly visits from their home on Long Island to their grandmother's apartment in Brooklyn, where through endless afternoons the children's mother and three aunts pour out decades of pent-up disappointments, hopes, and recriminations. Though the fate of one of the aunts figures as a recurring fugue theme, the novel is less plotted than painted. The coffee table with its doily, plastic flowers, and dish of sugared almonds; the family photographs; everything draped and dim and airless, and from the next room the muffled sound of someone sobbing: it is an achingly detailed tableau of lacecurtain Irish despair.
At Weddings and Wakes is the only novel I can think of told from a third-person-plural point of view, a narrative built on "The children saw …" and "To the younger girl it seemed that…." Yet the children's individual identities are strangely blurred; we barely learn their names, and other than a few parenthetical asides which sweep us decades ahead, we get no glimpse of their subsequent, adult lives and selves. This too is an extension of an impulse already evident in That Night. Indeed, an odd disjunction between the extravagant detail of her descriptive writing and an unwillingness to individuate the point-of-view character has figured increasingly as a hallmark of McDermott's style. Reading At Weddings and Wakes is a bit like being carried to a window on the shoulders of anonymous porters. Inside is a world where wedding-party bands play "Galway Bay" as men tell stories of Gentleman Jimmy Walker or a voice calls out "Sweet Jesus, don't mention Parnell!"; where children are taught the lives of the saints by nuns with names like Sister Illuminata. At Weddings and Wakes took the lyrical sadness of That Night and joined it to something like ethnography. Written in a lovely prose that quivers at the brink of sentimentality—this is a writer who can make even a door, "easing itself closed with what sounded like three short sorrowful expirations of breath," seem wistful—it is a nostalgic and immaculately detailed valedictory to a vanishing corner of Irish Catholicism.
McDermott's new novel, Charming Billy, is her most challenging to date—incorrigibly digressive, brash with time, intricately layered and crammed full of life. Set in 1983, Charming Billy focuses on three days following the funeral of Billy Lynch, WWII veteran, long-time employee of Con Edison, and lifelong resident of Irish-Catholic New York (Queens, to be exact). Through the reminiscences of family and friends we meet an incurable romantic who drank himself to death at sixty: a Billy who charms older ladies in restaurants; calms a woman's baby by murmuring Yeats's "Down by the Sally Gardens"; writes notes on napkins to send to the priest; calls his cousin and best friend, Dennis, in the middle of the night to rail drunkenly against death and the passing of all things. It is a rousing, tender rendition of that stock Irish figure, the poetic rogue in love with his sorrows. Is that a breviary in Billy's jacket pocket, or a flask?
Behind his sorrow lies a tale of deception and lost love. McDermott takes us to Long Island in the summer of 1945, where Billy meets and courts a young Irish nanny named Eva. Back in Ireland, she agrees to marry him, accepts the money he saves to send for her passage—and then is heard from no more. Through a go-between Dennis uncovers the banal truth (Eva has married another man and used the $500 to open a gas station), but tells Billy instead she died of pneumonia. The impulsive lie inaugurates Billy's decades of grieving devotion to her memory—he eventually marries, but stays true in his heart to Eva—and places in the novel's foreground the proposition that a life of deluded passion is better than one of clear-eyed disillusion.
Critics have likened McDermott to Joyce; but there's also a lot of F. Scott Fitzgerald in this novel—Billy an Irish workingman's Gatsby, Eva his Daisy, and Ireland itself, perhaps, the green light over the water. Like Gatsby, Billy conflates romance with poetry; kissing Eva on the beach in 1945 he feels, McDermott writes, "a desire for life itself to be as sweet as certain words could make it seem…." But McDermott frames Billy's life story in ironies, stinting neither the cost nor the complexity of his romanticism. First there are the ravages of alcohol and its punishing toll on the body: the downside of poetry is, literally, morbid ity. Then there's the fact that Billy's tragedy is founded on a lie. And for whose benefit? His goodness of heart gets soaked up by friends and relatives whose hurting he does for them: he loves and loses; he keeps the faith.
The Christian echo of a redemptive, sacrificial quality to Billy's passion could be heavy-handed. But McDermott guards against bathos by making those mourners who explicitly construe Billy as a Christ figure themselves seem heavy-handed. Still, those who dismiss Billy's suffering as the "genetic disease" of alcoholism—there's an Uncle Ted, an evangelical AA member—come off as pinched and zealous proponents of our era's mistaken urge to collapse tragedy into (mere) pathology: a reductively pragmatic approach, McDermott clearly believes, to the mysteries of human existence.
Charming Billy is a stealthily ambitious work of fiction. Under the cover of a realist's reverence for descriptive detail and a romance writer's duty to affairs of the heart, McDermott conducts surprising experiments in form and voice. At times she's content simply to sit her characters around a table and quote speaker after speaker, or to compress their talk into a group monologue of page-spanning paragraphs that reads like an unedited transcript. Elsewhere, her narrator steps forward with pronouncements that have a Jane Austen-like ring: "In the arc of an unremarkable life, a life whose triumphs are small and personal, whose trials are ordinary enough, as tempered in their pain as in their resolution of pain, the claim of exclusivity in love requires both a certain kind of courage and a good dose of delusion." An elegiac impulse plays freely with her sentences, lending a curious, huffing quality:
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. How lonely they all seemed to me that night, my father's family and friends, lonely souls every one of them, despite husbands and children and cousins and friends, all their hopes, in the end, their pairings and procreation and their keeping in touch, keeping track, futile in the end, failing in the end to keep them from seeing that nothing they felt, in the end, has made any difference.
There's a fine line between the exquisite and the laborious, and such writing risks becoming a parody of lyricism. There's something almost willful in the baroque extravagance of McDermott's style. It's as if she feels her previous books haven't gone far enough, that this time she's determined not merely to write about loss, but to take it down into the basic structures of the novel itself, fashioning a syntax of melancholy, a prose that gasps with sadness and doubles back on itself like the tangled contingencies of fate.
So too with the profusion of characters and their stories. Charming Billy seems wildly discursive, chronicling not merely the principal players in Billy's life, but much of the large supporting cast as well. You may find yourself flipping back to check which Daniel Lynch this is (there are two) or whose Uncle Jim worked at Edison back in '37; or wondering how you got onto the story of Billy's cousin's mother's Great-Aunty Eileen. Who are all these people? Again, McDermott isn't content merely to describe a texture of consciousness; she wants to create it, taking the density of Irish Catholic working-class family life and pressing it into the very molecules of the novel. It's as if the welter of names and stories—or rather our resistance to it—reveals our own attenuated capacity for family life. Reading Charming Billy one feels at times something like the strangeness, the scratchy bewilderment, of things perceived across a cultural divide.
Which brings us, finally, to the narrator. Charming Billy is told by the daughter of Billy's cousin Dennis, but through much of the novel you'd hardly notice it. She's a rather ghostly presence, never named, often present in the room but listening far more than talking. Only in the margins of the story do we get the skimpiest hints at her own life: a college graduate, married, living in Seattle with her children and husband. Readers of McDermott's last two books, recognizing yet another version of the trademark stealth narrator, may wonder, why not simply dispense with her altogether? Why bother to bring the narrator in as an actual character if you're not going to fill her out? It would be easy enough to toss the crutch aside and let an omniscient narrator take the slow drift back through the decades of Billy's life.
But there's a reason for the elusive, anonymous quality of McDermott's narrators. Third-generation Irish Americans situated at the end of a progression that goes urban New York, suburban Long Island, Somewhere Else, they stand looking back through the one-way window of as similation at the lives their parents and grandparents lived. It is a crowded picture, replete with emblems of a no-frills urban Irish Catholicism; a funeral party over roast beef and boiled potatoes; characters with names like Mickey Quinn or Bridie "from the old neighborhood" (famous for her pound cake, made with a full pound of butter); men who stop after work at Quinlan's for a quick drink before Friday Mass and who call their wives "Mama"; apartment living rooms where the brocade sofa with its plastic slipcovers stands beneath a framed copy of the Irish Blessing as a new widow sobs in grief, and the Monsignor, stopping to offer solace, is welcomed with awe and deference, like a movie star.
For better and for worse, this is the life of ethnic and religious community—loud, close-knit, restrictive. And it is a life McDermott's point-of-view characters have left behind. In Charming Billy the narrator's few comments about herself make clear who she is: "I married Matt and we headed off to Seattle. Lives of our own, we said. Self-sacrifice having been recognized as a delusion by then, not a virtue. Self-consciousness more the vogue."
Lives of our own, we said. The mildly deprecating irony McDermott reserves for what might be called post-Irish life suggests ambivalence about the trade-offs that come with breaking free of one's roots. Yes, things are gained: mobility, a change of scenery, freedom—including sexual freedom—education and professional status, and so on. But much gets lost. To shrug off the burdens of group identity is also to shrug off ferocious attachments; and McDermott's novels express doubt about whether, as ties attenuate and the old neighborhood sinks further into the past, anything as vivid and nourishing will take their place. The grand struggle to wrest one's self from the group delivers her protagonists to this deeply American paradox: that getting a life of your own brings a diminished sense of who you are. Hence the ghostly narrators. Charming Billy bids farewell both to Billy and to his entire way of life, its nameless narrator sent back to inspect a world where everyone owned a piece of you from one where identity rests on the still more perilous ground of self-discovery. Who is this person looking back with such regret and longing?
Source: Rand Richards Cooper, "Charming Alice: A Unique Voice in American Fiction," in Commonweal, March 27, 1998, pp. 10-12.
Cooper, Rand Richards, "Charming Alice: A Unique Voice in American Fiction," in Commonweal, March 27, 1998, pp. 10-12.
McDermott, Alice, Charming Billy, Random House, 1999.
Molyneux, Father John, Review of Charming Billy, in U.S. Catholic, November 2004, p. 33.
Ott, Bill, "Tipplers," in American Libraries, March 2000, p. 85.
Review of Charming Billy, in Publishers Weekly, October 6, 1997, p. 73.
Smith, Starr E., Review of Charming Billy, in Library Journal, November 1, 1997, p. 116.
Synge, John Millington, Preface to The Playboy of the Western World, in The Playboy of the Western World and Other Plays, Oxford University Press, 1998, pp. 96-97.
Charles, Ron, Review of Charming Billy, in the Christian Science Monitor, November 28, 1998, p. 18.
While Charles praises McDermott's technique in the novel, he ultimately finds its theme cynical.
Griffin, William D, The Book of Irish Americans, Crown Publishing, 1990.
This illustrated book chronicles the immigration of seven million Irish to America and their more than 40 million descendants.
Milam, James Robert, and Katherine Ketcham, Under the Influence: A Guide to the Myths and Realities of Alcoholism, Bantam, 1984.
The authors present a comprehensive overview of the causes and treatment of alcoholism.
Skow, John, Review of Charming Billy, in Time, January 12, 1998, pp. 87-90.
Skow declares the novel to be shrewd in its sketch of lower-middle-class Irish life.