Charming Billy

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Everyone loved him. If you knew Billy at all, then you loved him. The late Billy Lynch's family and friends, a party of 47, gather at a small bar and grill somewhere in the Bronx to remember better times in good company, and to redeem the pleasure of a drink or two from the miserable thing that a drink had become in Billy's life. His widow, Maeve, is there and everyone admires the way she is holding up, just as they always admired the way she cared for Billy after the alcohol had ruined him. But one cannot think ...
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Charming Billy: A Novel

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Overview

Everyone loved him. If you knew Billy at all, then you loved him. The late Billy Lynch's family and friends, a party of 47, gather at a small bar and grill somewhere in the Bronx to remember better times in good company, and to redeem the pleasure of a drink or two from the miserable thing that a drink had become in Billy's life. His widow, Maeve, is there and everyone admires the way she is holding up, just as they always admired the way she cared for Billy after the alcohol had ruined him. But one cannot think of Billy Lynch's life, one's own relentless affection for him, without saying at some point, "There was that girl. The Irish girl." And one can't help but think that the real story of his life lay there.

Winner of the 1998 National Book Award

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
Like Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes, Charming Billy, Alice McDermott's pitch-perfect evocation of post-World War II Irish American immigrant life, is a novel resonant with voices, in this case the voices of its voluble, bereaved characters, united in their efforts to understand the life and tragic death of their much-loved Billy Lynch. As the narrative jumps back and forth through time to explore the effect Billy has had on the friends and family who loved him, it becomes clear that Charming Billy, like McDermott's earlier novel That Night, is fueled by the twin engines of nostalgia and lost love. What makes the novel unusual, however, is the revelation, at the end of the first chapter, that the torch Billy carried for his long-dead love (a loss many believe caused the alcoholism that killed him) is predicated upon a lie: the Irish girl Billy loved and believed dead is, it turns out, actually alive, married and living in Ireland. Billy's cousin, Dennis, it seems, couldn't bear to tell Billy of her betrayal of him 30 years earlier; hoping to spare him a lifetime of pity and humiliation, Dennis instead told him a fictionalized story of her death.

Thus the central debate of the novel is set in motion: Was it the knowledge of Eva's betrayal that killed Billy? Or was it Billy's belated discovery of Dennis's 30-year-old lie? Or was his death simply due to a genetic weakness for alcohol, as one of Billy's relatives argues? Whatever the reason, observes Dennis's daughter (from whose point of view the novel takes place), of one thing there is nodoubt:Billy's death "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."

Wisely, it is through these other characters' voices, and through McDermott's poignant descriptions, that readers glean a sense of just how keen their loss is. In just a few lines, for instance, McDermott's description of Billy's widow, Maeve, manages to convey a lifetime of simplicity, modesty, and suffering.

Maeve sat in front, at the head of the table. She wore a navy-blue dress with long, slim sleeves and a round neckline, and anyone in the room who had not thought it earlier thought now — perhaps inspired by the perfect simplicity of what she wore — that there was a kind of beauty in her ordinary looks, in her plainness. Or, if they didn't think to call it beauty, they said courage — more appropriate to the occasion and the day — not meaning necessarily her new-widow's courage (with its attendant new-widow's clichés bearing up, holding on, doing well), but the courage it took to look out onto life from a face as plain as butter: pale, downy skin and bland blue eyes, faded brown hair cut short as a nun's and dimmer with gray. Only a touch of powder and of lipstick, only a wedding band and a small pearl ring for adornment.... Of course, they'd thought her courageous all along (most of them, anyway, or — most likely — all but my father), living with Billy as she did; but now, seeing her at the head of the table, Billy gone (there would be time enough throughout the afternoon to say it's unbelievable still), her courage, or her beauty, however they chose to refer to it, became something new — which made something new, in turn, of what they might say about Billy's life. Because if she was beautiful, then the story of his life, or the story they would begin to re-create for him this afternoon, would have to take another turn.

The changing nature of perception — how what one chooses to believe creates a new reality, which in turn necessitates a new story — is one of the novel's most compelling themes. And one by one, as different characters are described and given their turn to explain their views of Billy's life, one feels McDermott's tale taking on a particular layered wisdom. The truth of Billy's life resides in the eye of the observer, but one thing is certain: Billy never lost his charm. Never blaming anyone for the twists his life took, he did not grow bitter, nor did he cut Dennis off after discovery of his lie, a lie that Dennis later admits to his daughter was wrong:

I shouldn't have done it, I suppose. I should have told him the truth. He would have gotten over it and met Maeve anyway. He would have found something else to moon about when he drank. Rosie was right, an alcoholic can always find a reason but never needs one. I thought I was preserving his innocence, I guess. but I should have remembered 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. The problem is, it's hard to be a liar and a believer yourself, at the same time.

Unsurprisingly for a novel about Irish American immigrants, faith — for both those who retain it and those who lack it — is another central theme of the novel. In Charming Billy, those without it either suffer pangs of uncertainty or, like Dennis, are to some extent able to rationalize those pangs away. Those who retain faith, like Billy, suffer for their innocence and for their steadfast loyalty to memories, even ones that are proven false.

In the end, McDermott makes no pronouncements about Billy's fate — whether it was a broken heart that put him in his grave or simply an unfortunate tendency to drink — nor does she pass judgment on the actions of those who claimed they loved him best. Lives, McDermott seems to say, simply unfold, sometimes with grace, sometimes tragically. Ultimately, one of the narrator's lines could easily apply to the novel and to life itself: "My mother might have been different, my father was fond of saying, if her life had been different. I was a teenager before I began to point out that this was true of us all."—Sarah Midori Zimmerman

Lois Wadsworth
McDermott's storytelling skill is her greatest asset. In Charming Billy she strings together anecdotes using that most fragile and fickle of threads....Although McDermott's writing is eloquent and her characters are well-drawn, the structure of the novel presents problems for the casual reader. It's much like looking through a photograph album of people you don't know, of places you've never visited, and of events that happened long ago: The photos are a little fuzzy....This lack of in-the-moment affect is Charming Billy's primary defect, and even McDermott's beautiful writing can't overcome it.
— Biblio Magazine
Richard Eder
Taut and beautifully written. —Los Angeles Times
Alida Becker
[E]loquent ....heartbreaking...McDermott is brilliant. —The New York Times Book Review
New Yorker
Immensely accomplished.
Dan Cryer
You get no blarney from Alice McDermott's novels. What you get is Irish-American angst -- straight up, no chaser. You get probing family archeology, burnished prose and minimalist, backward-arching plots as her characters sift through battered memories for faint signs of redemption.

McDermott's latest, Charming Billy, circles repeatedly and tantalizingly around the ghostly form of Billy Lynch, the late sentimentalist, chatty raconteur, writer of sweet letters and drunk extraordinaire whose wake is the occasion for a chorus of reminiscing relatives and friends. Set in New York City's outer boroughs and Long Island from the '40s through the '80s, the novel is an exquisite portrayal of dream and delusion, the limits of community and, most pointedly, the cruel narcissism behind the alcoholic's grin.

By the end, we still hardly know Billy, but we understand all too well the havoc he has wrought. Especially for his long-suffering wife, Maeve, and guilt-ridden cousin, Dennis, whose well-meant lie may have wounded (but not cursed) Billy's already-doomed soul. Pain is said to have driven him to drink, the pain of learning that Eva, the Irish girl he fell for just after World War II, had died of pneumonia. In fact she hadn't died but jilted him to marry her Irish boyfriend -- and for years only Dennis knew. Maeve is Billy's plain consolation for losing pretty Eva, and Billy is a fitting partner for a daughter accustomed to tending to an alcoholic, widowed father.

As in Weddings and Wakes, McDermott's previous novel, an extended family serves as protagonist. The Lynches wring their hands, tell funny stories, debate whether alcoholism is a disease or a failure of will. Most of them are people of limited means who make do with boring jobs. To move from cramped apartment to modest house is a milestone only a few achieve. (A tiny vacation cottage in an unfashionable area of the Hamptons represents both what they feel entitled to and what is beyond reach.) And for believer and apostate alike, the Catholic Church provides the primary life-defining narrative.

McDermott fashions her story out of an accumulation of hints and evasions, secrets and lies. Emotions are closeted, muffled, purged. There are no explosive confrontations, no charged recriminations. Yet the drama is enormous, arising from the tension of what isn't said. Billy, an innocent who couldn't fathom that life is neither poetry nor prayer, is the silent center of a superbly crafted novel. -- Salon

Rox Spafford
Exquisitely presented...Alice McDermott's novels are like family albums, each scene hazy with yellow light of history, nostalgic as faded Polaroids.
— San Francisco Chronicle
Philadelphia Inquirer
An astoundingly beautiful novel about the persistence of love, the perseverance of grief, and all-but-unbearable loneliness, as well as faith, loyalty and redemption.
Gail Caldwell
Charming Billy is a remarkable and beautifully told novel, with overlays of prose and insight that are simply luminescent.
— Boston Sunday Globe
Celia McGee
This is fiction as good as it gets...There's a gentle fineness to her superlative new novel.
— USA Today
From The Critics
...McDermott shows...how lives are defined, how stories are told, how mistakes are made and never righted. She moves between past and present with ease, revealing whole lives and the ramifications of Dennis' lie...
Library Journal
When Billy, the glue of a tight Irish community in New York, dies as a result of lifelong alcohol abuse, mourners gather around roast beef and green bean amandine to tell tales and ruminate on his struggle for happiness after he lost his first love, Eva. With carefully drawn character studies and gentle probing, McDermott, who won the National Book Award for this work, masterfully weaves a subtle but tenacious web of relationships to explore the devastation of alcoholism, the loss of innocence, the daily practice of love, and the redeeming unity of family and friendship. (LJ 11/1/97)
Alida Becker
[E]loquent ....heartbreaking...McDermott is brilliant.
— The New York Times Book Review
Michiko Kakutani
A luminous and affecting novel...Ms. McDermott writes...with wisdom and grace, refusing to sentimentalize her characters, even as she forces us to recognize their decency and goodness.
— The New York Times
Gail Caldwell
Charming Billy is a remarkable and beautifully told novel, with overlays of prose and insight that are simply luminescent.
— Boston Sunday Globe
Celia McGee
This is fiction as good as it gets...There's a gentle fineness to her superlative new novel.
— USA Today
The New Yorker
Immensely accomplished.
The Philadelphia Inquirer
An astoundingly beautiful novel about the persistence of love, the perseverance of grief, and all-but-unbearable loneliness, as well as faith, loyalty and redemption.
Bruce Bawer
Miraculously beautiful…Exquisitely written, impeccably constructed, and as restrained as it is devastating in its emotional impact…A haunting and masterly work of literary art.
— Bruce Bawer,The Wall Street Journal
Catherine Petroski
A brilliant, highly complex, extraordinary piece of fiction and a triumph for its author.
— Catherine Petroski,Chicago Tribune
Jonathan Yardley
Comes close to being a perfect miniature…It is an exceptionally good novel.
— Jonathan Yardley,The Washington Post
Verlyn Klinkenborg
We are used to speaking of a writer's growth, as if the increasing stature of each new book could be marked on a kind of critical doorjamb. But there is such a thing as utter transformation too, and that is hard to talk about. The effect of Ms. McDermott's extraordinary second novel, That Nightwas not deducible from the 'promise' of A Bigamist's Daughter. And if That Nightand At Weddings and Wakesfeel like closer kin, it's only because Ms. McDermott has taught us to expect something extraordinary.
— Verlyn Klinkenborg, The New York Times Book Review
Michiko Kakutani
Magical…Ms. McDermott's people, unlike so many character's in contemporary American fiction, are defined largely by their relationships to other family members, relationships that are delineated with unusual understanding of how emotional debts and gifts are handed down, generation to generation, and how that legacy creates a sense of continuity and continuance, a hedge against the erasures of time. In Charming Billy Ms. McDermott writes about such matters with wisdom and grace, refusing to sentimentalize her characters even as she forces us to recognize their decency and goodness. She has written a luminous and affecting novel.
— Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
From the Publisher
"A luminous and affecting novel."—The New York Times

"Alice McDermott demonstrates anew that she is a writer in a league all her own."—People

"An exquisitly rendered potrait . . . tales overlap tales in a singsong pattern of Irish-American brogue and family history."—Entertainment Weekly

"An astoundingly beautiful novel about the persistence of love, the perseverance of grief, and all-but-unbearable loneliness, as well as faith, loyalty, and redemption."—Philadelphia Inquirer

"Taut and beautifully written . . . Each distinct atom of reality splits under McDermott's artisan hammer and releases a world of wild, lost particles: charm, for example, and others the physicists have not yet invented, such as grief, comedy, even happiness."—Los Angeles Times

"This is fiction as good as it gets."—USA Today

"Haunting . . . mesmerizing . . . McDermott is an enormously skilled and assured writer who transforms the ordinary into something resonant and magical."—Cleveland Plain Dealer

"[A] rueful shrug of a novel whose strong, shrewd opening pages should be taught in college writing classes."—Time

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385333344
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/28/1999
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 5.23 (w) x 7.98 (h) x 0.66 (d)

Meet the Author

Alice  McDermott

Alice McDermott is the author of six novels. Her articles, reviews and stories have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, Redbook and elsewhere.

Biography

Alice McDermott's latest novel, Charming Billy (1998), which won the National Book Award, tells the tragic story of the late Billy Lynch within the complex matrix of a tightly knit Irish American community. The New York Times Book Review praised the book as "eloquent" and "heartbreaking," and Kirkus Reviews called it "a softly resonant and nostalgic tale told masterfully."

Her first novel, A Bigamists' Daughter (1982), was published to wide acclaim. That Night (1987), her second novel, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. In his cover review for The New York Times Book Review, David Leavitt called That Night "an original, a work that revels in a rich, discursive prose style that belongs entirely to Alice McDermott." A film version of That Night was produced by Warner Bros. and released in the spring of 1992. At Weddings and Wakes (1992), her third novel, became a New York Times bestseller. Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times praised McDermott's "rich, supple prose" and Bruce Bawer called At Weddings and Wakes "a haunting and masterly work of literary art" in his review for The Wall Street Journal.

McDermott received her B.A. in 1975 from the State University of New York at Oswego, and her M.A. in 1978 from the University of New Hampshire. She has taught at the University of California at San Diego and American University, has been a writer-in-residence at Lynchburg and Hollins Colleges in Virginia, and was lecturer in English at the University of New Hampshire. Her short stories have appeared in Ms., Redbook, Mademoiselle, and Seventeen.

The recipient of a Whiting Writers Award, McDermott is currently writer-in-residence at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. She lives in Bethesda, Maryland, with her husband, a neuroscientist, and three children.

Author biography courtesy of NYS Writers Institute.

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    1. Hometown:
      Bethesda, Maryland
    1. Date of Birth:
      June 27, 1953
    2. Place of Birth:
      Brooklyn, New York
    1. Education:
      B.A., State University of New York-Oswego, 1975; M.A., University of New Hampshire, 1978

Read an Excerpt

Charming Billy

Reading Group Guide
By Alice McDermott

Farrar Straus Giroux

Copyright © 1997 Alice McDermott
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0374913897


Chapter One


SOMEWHERE IN THE BRONX, only twenty minutes or so from the cemetery, Maeve found a small bar-and-grill in a wooded alcove set well off the street that was willing to serve the funeral party of forty-seven medium-rare roast beef and boiled potatoes and green beans amandine, with fruit salad to begin and vanilla ice cream to go with the coffee. Pitchers of beer and of iced tea would be placed along the table at intervals and the bar left open--it being a regular business day--for anyone who wanted a drink.

The place was at the end of a sloping driveway that started out as macadam but quickly diminished to dirt and gravel. There was an apron of dirt and gravel in front of the building, potholed, and on the day of the funeral filled with puddles, and the first ten cars parked here, including the black limousine Maeve had ridden in. The others parked up along the drive, first along one side, then the other the members of the funeral party walking in their fourth procession of the day (the first had been out of the church the second and third in and out of the graveyard), down the wet and rutted path to the little restaurant that, lacking only draught Guinness and a peat fire might have been a pub in rural Ireland. Or, lacking dialogue by John Millington Synge the set of a rural Irish play.

How in the world she ever found this place was a mystery despite the question being asked again and again as Billy's friends and family filed in--the women in high heels walking on tiptoe down the sloping path the men holding their wives' arms and umbrellas that had already been well soaked at the side of the grave. All of them in their church clothes giving a formal air to the gray day and the ragged border of city trees and wet weeds. All of them speculating: perhaps the undertaker had suggested the place, or someone from the cemetery. Perhaps a friend friend or relative on her side (few as they were) who knew something about the Bronx, or maybe Mickey Quinn, who had his territory up here. But Mickey Quinn denied it, shaking his head, if you can believe there's a bar in any of the five boroughs that he hasn't been to.

The place smelled slightly of mildew, understandable in this weather and with this thick (even in April) bower of trees but the red-and-green tile floor was immaculate and the wooden bar gleamed under the fluorescent light. One long table draped with white tablecloths and set for forty-nine cut diagonally across the entire length of the room. One large window showed the parking lot full of cars, the other a wood that no doubt ended at a narrow side street or a row of dumpsters behind a row of stores, but seemed from in here to be dark and endlessly deep.

Maeve sat in front of this window, at the head of the table. She wore a navy-blue dress with long, slim sleeves and a round neckline, and anyone in the room who had not thought it earlier thought now--perhaps inspired by the perfect simplicity of what she wore--that there was a kind of beauty in her ordinary looks, in her plainness. Or, if they didn't think to call it beauty, they said courage--more appropriate to the occasion and the day--not meaning necessarily her new-widow's courage (with its attendant new-widow's cliches: bearing up, holding on, doing well), but the courage it took to look out onto life from a face as plain as butter: pale, downy skin and bland blue eyes, faded brown hair cut short as a nun's and dimmed with gray. Only a touch of powder and of lipstick, only a wedding band and a small pearl ring for adornment.

Of course, they'd thought her courageous all along (most of them, anyway, or--most likely--all but my father), living with Billy as she did; but now, seeing her at the head of the table, Billy gone (there would be time enough throughout the afternoon to say it's unbelievable still), her courage, or her beauty, however they chose to refer to it, became something new--which made something new, in turn, of what they might say about Billy's life. Because if she was beautiful, then the story of his life, or the story they would begin to re-create for him this afternoon, would have to take another turn.

My father sat to her right. Although Maeve had made all the arrangements herself--had found the place and chosen the menu and requested the fruit salad he served as soon as all the guests had arrived so there would be no long interval for speeches or toasts, only a quick blessing from one of the priests, he was the one the waitresses spoke to, and the owner of the place asked every now and then if anything was needed. He was the one who would settle the bill at the end of the afternoon and tip the waiters and the girl who took the coats and the umbrellas. He was the one who asked Maeve, after he'd already poured her a glass of iced tea, if she would like a drink, and then got up to fetch it for her, nodding to the undertaker and the driver, who were having their lunch at the bar.

She said, "Thank you, Dennis," when he placed the martini in front of her and then waited just a moment, her pale hand just touching the stem of the glass before she lifted it. "Good luck," he said, raising his own glass of beer. She nodded.

There's not much sense in pointing out the irony here--or even in trying to determine if everyone was either oblivious to it or so keenly aware that it no longer bore mentioning. Billy had died an alcoholic. Last night, in his casket, his face was bloated to twice its size and his skin was dark brown. (Dennis himself, my father, when he had identified the body two days ago at the VA, had said at first, momentarily relieved from the fact that Billy was dead, "But this is a colored man.")

Billy had drunk himself to death. 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.

Everyone loved him. It was Mickey Quinn saying this, down at my end of the table. Mickey Quinn, who also worked for Con Ed, his territory being here in the Bronx, although he'd never heard of this place before. Mickey with a beer in his hand, and the irony either lost on him or too obvious even to bear mentioning. "If you knew Billy at all," he said, "then you loved him. He was just that type of guy."

And if you loved him, we all knew, you pleaded with him at some point. Or you drove him to AA, waited outside the church till the meeting was over, and drove him home again. Or you advanced him whatever you could afford so he could travel to Ireland to take the pledge. If you loved him, you took his car keys away, took his incoherent phone calls after midnight. You banished him from your house until he could show up sober. You saw the bloodied scraps of flesh he coughed up into his drinks. If you loved him, then you told him at some point that he was killing himself and felt the way his indifference ripped through your affection. You left work early to identify his body at the VA, and instead of being grateful that the ordeal was at long last over, you felt a momentary surge of joy as you turned away: This was not Billy, it was some colored man.

"He had the sweetest nature," another cousin, yet another Rosemary, said at my end of the table. "He found a way like everyone, he really did. He always found something good to say, or something funny. I He could always get you laughing."

"He was funny, though." It was agreed. "God, wasn't he funny?"

"Everyone loved him."

Not missing the irony of the drinks in their hands and the drink that had killed him, but redeeming, perhaps, the pleasure of a drink or two, on a sad, wet afternoon, in the company of old friends, from the miserable thing that a drink had become in his life. Redeeming the affection they had felt for him, once torn apart by this willfulness, his indifference, making something worthwhile of it, something valuable that had been well spent, after all.

The fruit salad was canned but served with a little scoop of lime sherbet, which was refreshing, everyone agreed. It cleared the palate. "The rolls were nice. There was some soda bread in one of the bread baskets, someone must have brought it. "Not as good as mine, but then I prefer it with caraway seeds, the way my mother used to make it..."

You could not redeem Billy's life, redeem your own relentless affection for him, without saving at some point, "There was that girl."

"The Irish girl."

"Eva." Of course. Kate, his sister, would remember her name.

"That was a sad thinh, wasn't it? That was a blow to him."

"A girl he met right after the war. Right after he came home. Out on Long Island."

"An Irish girl," Kate said, "visiting her sister, who was a nursemaid for some wealthy family from Park Avenue. He wanted to marry her, even gave her a ring. She had to go back home first, her parents were elderly, I think. But they wrote to each other. Billy was a great letter writer, wasn't he? He was always scribbling notes and mailing them off."

"He'd write a note on anything, wouldn't he? A paper napkin, a train schedule, and mail it off to you."

"I have one," Bridie from the old neighborhood said. She dug into her patent-leather purse and found a greeting-card-sized envelope with two stamps that showed a harp and a fiddle. She looked at the postmark--June 1975--and then extracted a limp paper square of a cocktail napkin that contained Billy's looping hand. "He sent it from Ireland," she said. "From Shannon Airport." And there was the Act Lingus logo in the corner. With a blue ballpoint Billy had written: "Birdie: Just saw your face pass by on a twelve-year-old girl in a navy-blue school uniform. Said her name was Fiona. She was meeting her father's plane from New York. Your smile, your eyes, your very face at that age--second edition. Love, Billy."

The napkin was ciculated, held as delicately as a fledgling, some even reaching into a purse or a breast pocket for reading glasses so as not to miss a word. All the way up the table to Maeve, who read it with a smile and a nod, and all the way back down again. Bridie took it back and read it once more before placing it into its envelope and back into a side, zippered compartment of her Sunday pocketbook.

Other letters from Billy were being mentioned: a note scribbed on a Playbill page, on a business card. The long missives he'd sent home during the war, whole lines blacked out by the censors but the homesickness coming through. He was so homesick. The postcards from the Irish trip, the place mats and napkins from various Long Island restaurants and diners, that summer he and Dennis were out there, fixing up Mr. Holtzman's little house. You rememher Mr. Holtzman. Dennis's mother's second husband. The shoe-store man.

Which was the same summer he met the Irish girl. Eva. The one he had hoped to marry.

"She went back to Ireland at the beginning of the fall." Kate would remember. "And not long after that, Billy took the job with Mr. Holtzman--Saturdays all day and maybe Thursday nights, I think it was. Dennis had arranged it for him. Billy was trying to put together enough money to send for his girl, to bring her back here, and Dennis set it up with Mr. Holtzman that Billy work at the shoe store when he wasn't at Con Ed."

"He was a great salesman," her younger sister, also Rosemary, said.

"Well," Kate explained, "Mr. Holtzman had lost some business during the war--I don't know if it was rationing or his being of German extraction or what. Anyway, he was glad to get Billy, an ex-GI with that handsome face of his. Those blue eyes."

"He was a good-looking young guy," Bridie from the old neighborhood said. "Maybe a little shy."

"And that's where he met Maeve, wasn't it? In the shoe store?"

"Later on," Kate said. "She used to come to the store with her father, and I remember Billy telling me how patient she was with him because, you know, her father was a drinker, too."

"A redheaded W.C. Fields," sister Rosemary said. "I remember him at their wedding." Rolling her eyes.

"Poor Maeve has had her share of it?"

A pause as a waiter reached between them to remove the fruit-salad bowls, every one of them whispering. Thank you, thank you, and then Thank you again as another waiter leaned in to put down the lunch.

"Doesn't this look good?"

"And the plates are nice and warm."

"They're doing a nice job, aren't they? I wonder how she found this place." "The undertaker, I'm sure. He probably gets a commission."

"He sent her the money," Kate continued. "Eva, that is. The Irish girl. He sent her about five hundred dollars. I think."

"Which was a lot of money in those days." Someone was required to say it.

"It certainly was"--and to second.

"He sent her the money in the spring sometime, this would have been in '46. And she wrote back to say she was busy making plans, you know, arrangements for coming back over. Lord, he was like a man waiting for a bus in those days. The sun couldn't rise and set fast enough. He was hoping she would come over before the summer ended, so they could spend their honeymoon together, but on Long Island, in the little house, Holtzman's house, but where they'd first met. I don't know where he thought they were going to live after the honeymoon--remember what it was like, trying to find an apartment then?"

It was remembered. It was also noted that the roast beef was very tender, very moist. Better this splash of juice than a thick gravy.

Continues...


Excerpted from Charming Billy by Alice McDermott Copyright © 1997 by Alice McDermott. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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First Chapter

CHAPTER ONE

SOMEWHERE IN THE BRONX, only twenty minutes or so from the cemetery, Maeve found a small bar-and-grill in a wooded alcove set well off the street that was willing to serve the funeral party of forty-seven medium-rare roast beef and boiled potatoes and green beans amandine, with fruit salad to begin and vanilla ice cream to go with the coffee. Pitchers of beer and of iced tea would be placed along the table at intervals and the bar left open--it being a regular business day--for anyone who wanted a drink.

The place was at the end of a sloping driveway that started out as macadam but quickly diminished to dirt and gravel. There was an apron of dirt and gravel in front of the building, potholed, and on the day of the funeral filled with puddles, and the first ten cars parked here, including the black limousine Maeve had ridden in. The others parked up along the drive, first along one side, then the other the members of the funeral party walking in their fourth procession of the day (the first had been out of the church the second and third in and out of the graveyard), down the wet and rutted path to the little restaurant that, lacking only draught Guinness and a peat fire might have been a pub in rural Ireland. Or, lacking dialogue by John Millington Synge the set of a rural Irish play.

How in the world she ever found this place was a mystery despite the question being asked again and again as Billy's friends and family filed in--the women in high heels walking on tiptoe down the sloping path the men holding their wives' arms and umbrellas that had already been well soaked at the side of the grave. All of them in their church clothes giving a formal air to the gray day and the ragged border of city trees and wet weeds. All of them speculating: perhaps the undertaker had suggested the place, or someone from the cemetery. Perhaps a friend friend or relative on her side (few as they were) who knew something about the Bronx, or maybe Mickey Quinn, who had his territory up here. But Mickey Quinn denied it, shaking his head, if you can believe there's a bar in any of the five boroughs that he hasn't been to.

The place smelled slightly of mildew, understandable in this weather and with this thick (even in April) bower of trees but the red-and-green tile floor was immaculate and the wooden bar gleamed under the fluorescent light. One long table draped with white tablecloths and set for forty-nine cut diagonally across the entire length of the room. One large window showed the parking lot full of cars, the other a wood that no doubt ended at a narrow side street or a row of dumpsters behind a row of stores, but seemed from in here to be dark and endlessly deep.

Maeve sat in front of this window, at the head of the table. She wore a navy-blue dress with long, slim sleeves and a round neckline, and anyone in the room who had not thought it earlier thought now--perhaps inspired by the perfect simplicity of what she wore--that there was a kind of beauty in her ordinary looks, in her plainness. Or, if they didn't think to call it beauty, they said courage--more appropriate to the occasion and the day--not meaning necessarily her new-widow's courage (with its attendant new-widow's cliches: bearing up, holding on, doing well), but the courage it took to look out onto life from a face as plain as butter: pale, downy skin and bland blue eyes, faded brown hair cut short as a nun's and dimmed with gray. Only a touch of powder and of lipstick, only a wedding band and a small pearl ring for adornment.

Of course, they'd thought her courageous all along (most of them, anyway, or--most likely--all but my father), living with Billy as she did; but now, seeing her at the head of the table, Billy gone (there would be time enough throughout the afternoon to say it's unbelievable still), her courage, or her beauty, however they chose to refer to it, became something new--which made something new, in turn, of what they might say about Billy's life. Because if she was beautiful, then the story of his life, or the story they would begin to re-create for him this afternoon, would have to take another turn.

My father sat to her right. Although Maeve had made all the arrangements herself--had found the place and chosen the menu and requested the fruit salad he served as soon as all the guests had arrived so there would be no long interval for speeches or toasts, only a quick blessing from one of the priests, he was the one the waitresses spoke to, and the owner of the place asked every now and then if anything was needed. He was the one who would settle the bill at the end of the afternoon and tip the waiters and the girl who took the coats and the umbrellas. He was the one who asked Maeve, after he'd already poured her a glass of iced tea, if she would like a drink, and then got up to fetch it for her, nodding to the undertaker and the driver, who were having their lunch at the bar.

She said, "Thank you, Dennis," when he placed the martini in front of her and then waited just a moment, her pale hand just touching the stem of the glass before she lifted it. "Good luck," he said, raising his own glass of beer. She nodded.

There's not much sense in pointing out the irony here--or even in trying to determine if everyone was either oblivious to it or so keenly aware that it no longer bore mentioning. Billy had died an alcoholic. Last night, in his casket, his face was bloated to twice its size and his skin was dark brown. (Dennis himself, my father, when he had identified the body two days ago at the VA, had said at first, momentarily relieved from the fact that Billy was dead, "But this is a colored man.")

Billy had drunk himself to death. 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.

Everyone loved him. It was Mickey Quinn saying this, down at my end of the table. Mickey Quinn, who also worked for Con Ed, his territory being here in the Bronx, although he'd never heard of this place before. Mickey with a beer in his hand, and the irony either lost on him or too obvious even to bear mentioning. "If you knew Billy at all," he said, "then you loved him. He was just that type of guy."

And if you loved him, we all knew, you pleaded with him at some point. Or you drove him to AA, waited outside the church till the meeting was over, and drove him home again. Or you advanced him whatever you could afford so he could travel to Ireland to take the pledge. If you loved him, you took his car keys away, took his incoherent phone calls after midnight. You banished him from your house until he could show up sober. You saw the bloodied scraps of flesh he coughed up into his drinks. If you loved him, then you told him at some point that he was killing himself and felt the way his indifference ripped through your affection. You left work early to identify his body at the VA, and instead of being grateful that the ordeal was at long last over, you felt a momentary surge of joy as you turned away: This was not Billy, it was some colored man.

"He had the sweetest nature," another cousin, yet another Rosemary, said at my end of the table. "He found a way like everyone, he really did. He always found something good to say, or something funny. I He could always get you laughing."

"He was funny, though." It was agreed. "God, wasn't he funny?"

"Everyone loved him."

Not missing the irony of the drinks in their hands and the drink that had killed him, but redeeming, perhaps, the pleasure of a drink or two, on a sad, wet afternoon, in the company of old friends, from the miserable thing that a drink had become in his life. Redeeming the affection they had felt for him, once torn apart by this willfulness, his indifference, making something worthwhile of it, something valuable that had been well spent, after all.

The fruit salad was canned but served with a little scoop of lime sherbet, which was refreshing, everyone agreed. It cleared the palate. "The rolls were nice. There was some soda bread in one of the bread baskets, someone must have brought it. "Not as good as mine, but then I prefer it with caraway seeds, the way my mother used to make it..."

You could not redeem Billy's life, redeem your own relentless affection for him, without saving at some point, "There was that girl."

"The Irish girl."

"Eva." Of course. Kate, his sister, would remember her name.

"That was a sad thing, wasn't it? That was a blow to him."

"A girl he met right after the war. Right after he came home. Out on Long Island."

"An Irish girl," Kate said, "visiting her sister, who was a nursemaid for some wealthy family from Park Avenue. He wanted to marry her, even gave her a ring. She had to go back home first, her parents were elderly, I think. But they wrote to each other. Billy was a great letter writer, wasn't he? He was always scribbling notes and mailing them off."

"He'd write a note on anything, wouldn't he? A paper napkin, a train schedule, and mail it off to you."

"I have one," Bridie from the old neighborhood said. She dug into her patent-leather purse and found a greeting-card-sized envelope with two stamps that showed a harp and a fiddle. She looked at the postmark--June 1975--and then extracted a limp paper square of a cocktail napkin that contained Billy's looping hand. "He sent it from Ireland," she said. "From Shannon Airport." And there was the Act Lingus logo in the corner. With a blue ballpoint Billy had written: "Birdie: Just saw your face pass by on a twelve-year-old girl in a navy-blue school uniform. Said her name was Fiona. She was meeting her father's plane from New York. Your smile, your eyes, your very face at that age--second edition. Love, Billy."

The napkin was ciculated, held as delicately as a fledgling, some even reaching into a purse or a breast pocket for reading glasses so as not to miss a word. All the way up the table to Maeve, who read it with a smile and a nod, and all the way back down again. Bridie took it back and read it once more before placing it into its envelope and back into a side, zippered compartment of her Sunday pocketbook.

Other letters from Billy were being mentioned: a note scribbed on a Playbill page, on a business card. The long missives he'd sent home during the war, whole lines blacked out by the censors but the homesickness coming through. He was so homesick. The postcards from the Irish trip, the place mats and napkins from various Long Island restaurants and diners, that summer he and Dennis were out there, fixing up Mr. Holtzman's little house. You rememher Mr. Holtzman. Dennis's mother's second husband. The shoe-store man.

Which was the same summer he met the Irish girl. Eva. The one he had hoped to marry.

"She went back to Ireland at the beginning of the fall." Kate would remember. "And not long after that, Billy took the job with Mr. Holtzman--Saturdays all day and maybe Thursday nights, I think it was. Dennis had arranged it for him. Billy was trying to put together enough money to send for his girl, to bring her back here, and Dennis set it up with Mr. Holtzman that Billy work at the shoe store when he wasn't at Con Ed."

"He was a great salesman," her younger sister, also Rosemary, said.

"Well," Kate explained, "Mr. Holtzman had lost some business during the war--I don't know if it was rationing or his being of German extraction or what. Anyway, he was glad to get Billy, an ex-GI with that handsome face of his. Those blue eyes."

"He was a good-looking young guy," Bridie from the old neighborhood said. "Maybe a little shy."

"And that's where he met Maeve, wasn't it? In the shoe store?"

"Later on," Kate said. "She used to come to the store with her father, and I remember Billy telling me how patient she was with him because, you know, her father was a drinker, too."

"A redheaded W.C. Fields," sister Rosemary said. "I remember him at their wedding." Rolling her eyes.

"Poor Maeve has had her share of it?"

A pause as a waiter reached between them to remove the fruit-salad bowls, every one of them whispering. Thank you, thank you, and then Thank you again as another waiter leaned in to put down the lunch.

"Doesn't this look good?"

"And the plates are nice and warm."

"They're doing a nice job, aren't they? I wonder how she found this place." "The undertaker, I'm sure. He probably gets a commission."

"He sent her the money," Kate continued. "Eva, that is. The Irish girl. He sent her about five hundred dollars. I think."

"Which was a lot of money in those days." Someone was required to say it.

"It certainly was"--and to second.

"He sent her the money in the spring sometime, this would have been in '46. And she wrote back to say she was busy making plans, you know, arrangements for coming back over. Lord, he was like a man waiting for a bus in those days. The sun couldn't rise and set fast enough. He was hoping she would come over before the summer ended, so they could spend their honeymoon together, but on Long Island, in the little house, Holtzman's house, but where they'd first met. I don't know where he thought they were going to live after the honeymoon--remember what it was like, trying to find an apartment then?"

It was remembered. It was also noted that the roast beef was very tender, very moist. Better this splash of juice than a thick gravy.

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Introduction

This guide is intended to enrich your experience of reading Alice McDermott's Charming Billy. This powerful novel by the acclaimed author of At Weddings and Wakes presents a moving and wryly ironic portrait of Billy Lynch, a charming but enigmatic man, and his extended Irish-American family during the years between World War II and the 1990s.

The family and friends assembled at Billy's funeral remember him with fond exasperation. A self-destructive alcoholic who drank himself into a premature grave, Billy caused much grief to his friends and his gentle, devoted wife, Maeve; yet everyone loved him for his charming and affectionate nature. His friends are aware that as a young ex-GI Billy had fallen in love with and become engaged to Eva, a lovely Irish girl who returned to Ireland and died before she could come back to America to join him; therefore they see his drinking as a perverse way of being faithful to her memory. But as the narrator begins to piece together a clearer picture of the past through conversations with her father, Billy's cousin and closest friend, she comes to recognize that the story of Billy—and, by extension, of her father—is far more complex and nuanced than she had ever imagined. Charming Billy, like McDermott's other novels, brilliantly exposes the rich psychological drama within even the most seemingly ordinary lives and is full of all the intelligent sensitivity, emotion, and vivid feeling for atmosphere that readers have come to expect from this captivating author.
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Foreword

1. If Billy's wife had been beautiful, observes the narrator, "then the story of his life, or the story they would begin to re-create for him this afternoon, would have to take another turn" (p. 3). What is the accepted story of Billy's life as presented by the mourners assembled at the funeral lunch? Which aspects of that story turn out to be false?

2. Rosemary says that Billy's alcoholism was "a disease" (p. 19): Dan Lynch says that "maybe for some people it's a disease . . . Maybe for some it's a sadness they can't get rid of or a disappointment that won't go away . .. They're loyal to their own feelings" (pp. 20-21). Dennis says that "an alcoholic can always find a reason but never needs one" (p. 35). When it comes to Billy, which of them is right?

3. When Dennis decides to tell Billy that Eva is dead, he thinks, "Better he be brokenhearted than trailed all the rest of his life by a sense of his own foolishness" (p. 31). Does Dennis come to change his mind later in life, to regret having told a lie? What other lies does Dennis tell Billy, and what illusions does he allow Billy to entertain?

4. Dennis says, "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" (pp. 35-36). Why does Dennis link drinking with faith? What does Dennis mean when he says Billy has faith? Is this faith connected with religious faith? "Redemption" is a favorite word of Billy's (p. 187). What does it mean to him? What does the narrator mean when she contrasts Billy's type of faith with Dennis's (p. 242)?

5. What does the demeanor of the priest who visits Maeve and the way the assembled mourners reactto him tell us about the author's attitude toward the Church and its dogmas about life and death? What are Billy's feelings toward these dogmas? What are Dennis's, and what about the narrator's?

6. Why does Billy love the sight of the large houses in East Hampton, and what does that say about his character and circumstances? What class attitudes are held in common by this large extended family? Kate feels she has escaped her working-class background. Has she really? In what ways has she taken on the characteristics of the upper middle class, and in what ways is she rooted in her origins?

7. Dennis says of Billy, "It's hard to be a liar and a believer yourself" (p. 36). What does he mean by this?

8. In what ways have the life experiences of Dennis's mother, Sheila, helped to form her character? What is her real opinion of both her husbands? When the narrator says that Sheila's first husband "had been, without question, Holy Father to the entire clan" (p. 97), what is she implying?

9. Dennis seems, on the surface, to be an easygoing and simple man. What events show him to be a far more complex and sophisticated person than he might appear? How would you describe Dennis? How does his character contrast with Billy's?

10. The narrator says that regarding Maeve's relationship with her elderly father, hers "was not an unusual case . . . It was, I suppose, the very image I'd fought against myself" (p. 132). But times have changed, "self-sacrifice having been recognized as a delusion by then, not a virtue. Self-consciousness more the vogue" (p. 132). In what other ways have manners and mores noticeably changed in the years between Dennis's youth and his daughter's?

11. Dorothy says that Billy was "maybe too sensitive for this world, if you know what I mean" (p. 168). Do you agree with her?

12. What does Billy's conversation with Eva at the Clonmel gas station tell the reader about Eva's character? Do you think that Billy gets the same message—in other words, does he leave Ireland with a realistic picture of who and what she is?

13. Why does Billy write the message "Beautiful friend" (p. 232) to Maeve after his return from Ireland? Does it mean that he has begun to love and appreciate her for herself, without the ideal of Eva to compare her with? If so, why does his drinking intensify?

14. Why do you think Dennis marries Maeve after Billy's death? Does this marriage come as a surprise to you?

15. In an interview about one of her earlier novels, Alice McDermott stated: "You don't look at the past just once, and you look at it with the knowledge of the present, which was the future. I like that going over, seeing an event through other events that have occurred since, seeing it again and seeing it in a different way, from a different perspective as time goes on" (Publishers Weekly, March 30, 1992). Is this an accurate way of describing McDermott's narrative technique in Charming Billy? Which, in your opinion, are the key events of the novel, and from how many different angles and points of view are they described?

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Interviews & Essays

On Sunday, February 15th, barnesandnoble.com welcomed Alice McDermott to discuss CHARMING BILLY.


Moderator: Welcome, Ms. McDermott! Thank you for joining us on this sleepy and chilly Sunday afternoon. How do you usually spend your Sundays?

Alice McDermott: I like the sleepy part. It has been a long time since I thought of Sunday afternoons as sleepy times. Usually Sunday afternoons are a way of organizing for the rest of the week. So this is pleasure.


Beth from Cherry Hill, Pa: You have always published novels -- have you ever flirted with the short story form? What happened?

Alice McDermott: I started out as a short story writer. The first things I published were short stories. For a long time I thought of myself as only a short story writer. But when I sat down to write my first novel -- which I only did because I found myself with time to write -- I discovered that with that much time to write, writing short stories was difficult and daunting. So I began writing a novel. I discovered that writing short stories does not prepare you for writing a novel. They are totally different forms. And I also found out that writing novels -- the form -- is more to my liking.


Howard from Glen Cove, NY: Which short story writers do you most admire?

Alice McDermott: I would have to say, first and foremost, Vladimir Nabokov. For a writer, his stories are the most inspirational. All his stories are gems. And I think he's not known enough as a short story writer. I think his short story reputation was skewed by LOLITA. But that is changing. With the publication of the collected short stories, a lot of people are discovering him.


Mary from Freeport, NY: I come from a monstrous Irish family, and I must admit, you were dead-on with your depictions of an Irish wake. The careful attention to coffee, tea, and ice cream in little tin cups -- I've been there. I think you were channeling my relatives. Did you grow up in a similar family? If not, what kind of research do you do?

Alice McDermott: I didn't grow up in that kind of family. I grew up in an Irish American family, but I didn't have a big family. But I did have a lot of friends with Irish families of all sorts. I truly believed that grandparents had accents. I grew up in Elmont, NY, and all the people on my street were from everywhere else. I didn't have to do research, because I had been observing everyone for years. And as for the Irish, if you know one of us, you know us all.


Megan from Seattle, WA: I noticed that one of your favorite books to give as gifts is a children's book. That seems an unlikely, though wonderful, choice. What makes it a favorite?

Alice McDermott: It is such a delightful book. The line from it that really wins my heart is "the queens came late, but the queens were there." It's the other side of the three wise men -- all the people and beings who were in Bethlehem but were not mentioned. The three queens don't bring gifts for the baby but for the mother. Things like a homespun blue dress and chicken soup. It's fabulous for any mother who is reading it to her children. A little bit of payback maybe.


Vivian from Chicago, IL: I like that you used Dennis's daughter, "youth," as a catalyst for change. Is that a theme in other books of yours?

Alice McDermott: That's a good question. Probably it is. It was important to me in this novel to have that third generation somehow bringing this story into the future without taking the focus off of the lives of the generations before it. I suppose now that I think of it, it is a theme of mine, a young person who is observing and interpreting and then carrying the stories or the memories on into another future. It is probably tied to that idea of redemption that seems to crop up not only in Billy's ravings when he has had too much to drink, but in my consciousness as well. It would have to be that young voice that offers redemption or the sense of what endures over time.


Nicole from Albany, NY: In some ways, it is a good thing that Billy never married Eva. Dennis would have then married Mary, and his life would have been very unhappy. It seems as if someone had to lose out in this cycle of family you chronicle. In this case it is Billy. But couldn't it just as easily have been Dennis?

Alice McDermott: That's interesting. I don't know for sure that Dennis would have married Mary, and if he had married her I'm not so sure it would have been a bad thing. I suppose I had the sense from the start that it was so clearly not meant to be, that any of those what ifs would seem more like impossibilities to me.


Edna from Portland, OR: What do you think is the role of humor in fiction? You use it very subtly, and I really like it!

Alice McDermott: Thank you. I'm glad to hear that. I think humor is really important in fiction and in life. I sometimes despair because my novels often tend to deal with emotional things and people living and dying, and the humor often gets lost. I think it's important even in the face of living and dying that we keep our sense of humor -- especially in the face of dying.


Emily from Atlanta, GA: Would you classify yourself as a feminist? What do you think feminism is? I just ask because the strong characters in your books, the ones who weather storms, are always women.... I'd love your thoughts! Thank you!

Alice McDermott: Yes, I probably would characterize myself as a feminist if I had to. I don't have any problems with the word or the movement, but it does raise a lot of limiting ideas for people. It's true that women weather storms in my books, particularly in CHARMING BILLY. But I'm not sure that I have any political agenda in choosing her. It's just what women do. Keeping family histories, analyzing why family members do the things they do over hours on the phone, keeping track of current family for the future.I'm also aware of women's role in fiction and women's sometimes limited role in fiction. In this book I wanted a strong woman telling the story. I wanted to have a woman who was not recovering from a nervous breakdown or in the midst of a nervous breakdown or about to have a nervous breakdown. So with that goal in mind, my narrator was carefully formed. So that sounds like a feminist point of view. I did get a big laugh when a reviewer said, "How could a young woman see so clearly into other people's minds?"


Anne from Bloomington, IN: What kind of books do you read when you unwind (like on a quiet Sunday like today)? I always hit the classics, like Eliot and Fitzgerald, maybe a little Yeats....

Alice McDermott: Yeah, I think when it is late at night and I want to read something, I tend towards poetry. I love Wallace Stevens, Yeats. I still occasionally dip into Edna St. Vincent Millay. And I reread a lot lately. I am finding more and more that I go back to books that I love and find great pleasure in reading a book a third or fourth time. Or just enjoying it again. I am a pick-up reader. People send me books, and I pick them up and read them. So it's hard to map out any conscious reading list. When I don't have a book, I feel a little bit lost.


Cyndi Fosco from Round Lake, IL: Are you involved in book-signing tours when you publish a new book? If yes, are there any plans on coming to the Chicagoland area?

Alice McDermott: Yes, I am just about to embark on my tour. I'll be starting this week, and Chicago is on March 19th, at Barbara's bookstore.


Cory Fosco from Round Lake, IL: What did you think of the movie version of THAT NIGHT, and are there any plans to turn your other books into movies?

Alice McDermott: I didn't have much to do with the movie version of THAT NIGHT. I thought it was a sincere effort, but it was not the story I had told. Not my characters, and thematically it was trying to say something else entirely as well. It is still fun to see something you have written, in whatever form, on the screen. To see what someone else has made of it. I thought Juliette Lewis was very good.


Isaac from New Orleans: I think Dennis's lingering pain about lying to Billy is very honest and accurate. How did you capture the complexity of that sentiment?

Alice McDermott: Well, I am glad to hear that maybe I did. I think that the relationship between the two men was just something that I almost had to follow rather than to invent. I know that when I conceived of the novel, Billy, or a character like him, was the impetus -- the Irish cliché of the much-loved incorrigible drunk. I don't think it was too long into the working out of the novel that I realized that it wasn't about Billy but about the people around him. He wasn't interesting enough on his own, but the way people reacted to him and lived around him was. Dennis was always right there. I couldn't know Billy if I didn't know Dennis. Having that relationship early on in the novel made it seem like something that I could invent. Instead I explained it for myself and my readers.


Susan from Chimayo, NM: What brings you to the subject of alcoholism? The disease has such far-reaching implications for families; everyone is affected, as in CHARMING BILLY. Any thoughts?

Alice McDermott: As I was saying, I was drawn to the character of Billy. But I think I was also aware from the onset that I wasn't writing a novel about alcoholism. I was writing about this particular character, who, among other things, was an alcoholic. That is not to say that the alcoholism was in any way incidental. I discovered something when I was well into the book. I had a moment when I thought I should do a little reading about alcoholism, the alcoholic profile. The thing that struck me, that encouraged me to go on, was that any profile I could find about an alcoholic would always admit that, of course, all alcoholics are alike, but that you can't point your finger at any one thing that makes them alcoholics. And then the stories would turn around and say something particular about each alcoholic and what their life was like. So I think that within the profile of an alcoholic there is an insistence on our part, as human beings, of some kind of individuality. Even if the disease makes every alcoholic typical in some way, or even a cliché in some way. It was reassuring because that was what I felt each of my characters was doing.


Glen from Louisville, KY: This may seem an odd question, but why do you write? What compels you to put pen to the paper, so to speak, each day? I write myself (for myself), but I have trouble making myself do it every day.

Alice McDermott: It's probably the question. I write because I can't do anything else. I have tried. When I was in college, I had a wonderful writing teacher my second year. At that time I hadn't been considering writing as a career. When I handed in my first writing assignment for him, he called me down after class and said, "I've got bad news for you, kid. You are a writer and you will never shake it." I often tell my students that if they can do anything else they should do it. I think those of us who write fiction, we do it because we absolutely have to. There is no other way for us to live. There is nothing else for us to do that, at the end of the day, doesn't feel like time wasted.


Jane from Cleveland, OH: Many literary authors, like Robert Olen Butler and Frederick Busch, have teaching positions as well as being writers. Have you ever taught? Have you ever thought about it? I would love to learn writing from you. Thanks!

Alice McDermott: Yes, I have taught. Here, there, and everywhere, it seems. Right now I teach at Johns Hopkins. I have been fortunate enough to be able to teach part-time. So I haven't been in the position of feeling that my teaching time is stealing from my writing time. I find it rejuvenating to sit in the room with a bunch of writers. We are all struggling with the same thing -- each in our own way, of course. It's also nice to have people you can require to read things so you have someone to talk about it with. "You must all read this!" That's great. Except when they all disagree with you. But that is fun too.


Peter from Los Angeles, CA: Billy is not really a sad figure in your book, he seems more wistful, like a 6'1" sigh. Do you think of him as sad? Or is it his wife that is ultimately the sad one?

Alice McDermott: No, I don't think of either of them as being defined primarily by their sadness. I see all the characters in CHARMING BILLY as people who are making their way through the life they have been given. I don't see an unrelenting sadness, not even an unrelenting wistfulness about their lives. ALthough I do agree that in the telling and retelling of their lives they are lent a wistfulness and certainly a good deal of sadness. But Billy goes through his life the best he can. He has moments of great joy, even though it's not an easily definable joy. He has the love of many relatives and friends. I think he has the comfort of his romantic tragedy, or that is how he sees it. And his wife, Maeve, as well. To say that she is disappointed at times and confounded in her affections at times is true, but I think when she lies awake at night and waits for Billy to come home and counts her blessings, it's not ironic. She believes in those blessing and weighs them against her troubles. Their lives are more than just the single thing that seems to define them when they are being spoken about. Their lives are more important than that.


Moderator: Thank you so much for joining us! Do you have any writerly words of wisdom before we part?

Alice McDermott: Since I am about to embark on this book tour, I have to say the promotional aspect of writing novels always strikes me as incredibly ironic. Everything I have to say is in the book, and everything I haven't is in the next book if it is worth worrying about. But it is still nice to think that outside of the novel a writer might have some wisdom!


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Reading Group Guide

"Magical . . . Ms. McDermott writes . . . with wisdom and grace, refusing to sentimentalize her characters even as she forces us to recognize their decency and goodness. She has written a luminous and affecting novel." -- Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

About This Guide
The questions and discussion topics that follow are intended to enhance your group's reading of Alice McDermott's Charming Billy. We hope that this guide will provide you a starting place for discussion, and suggest a variety of perspectives from which you might approach Charming Billy.

Discussion Questions
1. If Billy's wife had been beautiful, observes the narrator, "then the story of his life, or the story they would begin to re-create for him this afternoon, would have to take another turn" (p. 3). What is the accepted story of Billy's life as presented by the mourners assembled at the funeral lunch? Which aspects of that story turn out to be false?

2. Rosemary says that Billy's alcoholism was "a disease" (p. 19): Dan Lynch says that "maybe for some people it's a disease . . . Maybe for some it's a sadness they can't get rid of or a disappointment that won't go away . .. They're loyal to their own feelings" (pp. 20-21). Dennis says that "an alcoholic can always find a reason but never needs one" (p. 35). When it comes to Billy, which of them is right?

3. When Dennis decides to tell Billy that Eva is dead, he thinks, "Better he be brokenhearted than trailed all the rest of his life by a sense of his own foolishness" (p. 31). Does Dennis come to change his mind later in life, to regret having told a lie? What other lies does Dennis tell Billy, and what illusions does he allow Billy to entertain?

4. Dennis says, "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" (pp. 35-36). Why does Dennis link drinking with faith? What does Dennis mean when he says Billy has faith? Is this faith connected with religious faith? "Redemption" is a favorite word of Billy's (p. 187). What does it mean to him? What does the narrator mean when she contrasts Billy's type of faith with Dennis's (p. 242)?

5. What does the demeanor of the priest who visits Maeve and the way the assembled mourners react tohim tell us about the author's attitude toward the Church and its dogmas about life and death? What are Billy's feelings toward these dogmas? What are Dennis's, and what about the narrator's?

6. Why does Billy love the sight of the large houses in East Hampton, and what does that say about his character and circumstances? What class attitudes are held in common by this large extended family? Kate feels she has escaped her working-class background. Has she really? In what ways has she taken on the characteristics of the upper middle class, and in what ways is she rooted in her origins?

7. Dennis says of Billy, "It's hard to be a liar and a believer yourself" (p. 36). What does he mean by this?

8. In what ways have the life experiences of Dennis's mother, Sheila, helped to form her character? What is her real opinion of both her husbands? When the narrator says that Sheila's first husband "had been, without question, Holy Father to the entire clan" (p. 97), what is she implying?

9. Dennis seems, on the surface, to be an easygoing and simple man. What events show him to be a far more complex and sophisticated person than he might appear? How would you describe Dennis? How does his character contrast with Billy's?

10. The narrator says that regarding Maeve's relationship with her elderly father, hers "was not an unusual case . . . It was, I suppose, the very image I'd fought against myself" (p. 132). But times have changed, "self-sacrifice having been recognized as a delusion by then, not a virtue. Self-consciousness more the vogue" (p. 132). In what other ways have manners and mores noticeably changed in the years between Dennis's youth and his daughter's?

11. Dorothy says that Billy was "maybe too sensitive for this world, if you know what I mean" (p. 168). Do you agree with her?

12. What does Billy's conversation with Eva at the Clonmel gas station tell the reader about Eva's character? Do you think that Billy gets the same message--in other words, does he leave Ireland with a realistic picture of who and what she is?

13. Why does Billy write the message "Beautiful friend" (p. 232) to Maeve after his return from Ireland? Does it mean that he has begun to love and appreciate her for herself, without the ideal of Eva to compare her with? If so, why does his drinking intensify?

14. Why do you think Dennis marries Maeve after Billy's death? Does this marriage come as a surprise to you?

15. In an interview about one of her earlier novels, Alice McDermott stated: "You don't look at the past just once, and you look at it with the knowledge of the present, which was the future. I like that going over, seeing an event through other events that have occurred since, seeing it again and seeing it in a different way, from a different perspective as time goes on" (Publishers Weekly, March 30, 1992). Is this an accurate way of describing McDermott's narrative technique in Charming Billy? Which, in your opinion, are the key events of the novel, and from how many different angles and points of view are they described?

About the Author
Alice McDermott grew up in the suburbs of Long Island, went to college at the Oswego campus of the State University of New York, and attended the graduate writing program at the University of New Hampshire. She wrote several short stories for Redbook, Mademoiselle, and Seventeen, and her first novel, A Bigamist's Daughter, was published in 1982. Charming Billy is her fourth novel. McDermott lives in Bethesda, Maryland, with her husband, David Armstrong -- a neuroscientist -- and their three children. She teaches writing at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 21 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 20, 2004

    Compelling and thought provoking

    I read this book in college as part of a contemporary American literature class. It was one of the most engaging and thought provoking books I read that semester, and it¿s become one of my favorites. I highly recommend this book, but it isn't for those looking for a quick story or a fast-paced adventure. It is a story of themes and relationships, not action. Reading Charming Billy is like flipping through the pages of a family photo album. But the pictures seem to be out of order. The novel begins with a gathering of family and friends. They meet in a small restaurant in the Bronx for a luncheon following Billy Lynch¿s funeral. The author guides the reader from group to group, and the reader catches small bits of different conversations. The following chapters fill in the gaps left in the conversations. The story is, however, disjointed, meandering from the forties to the seventies and back to the sixties. It is as if the pictures fell out of the photo album and were replaced carelessly out of order. To compound this difficulty, the narration itself can be confusing. Sometimes the narrator seems to be merely recounting the story, but sometimes she seems to be addressing an unnamed person. Sometimes she refers to her father by his first name and sometimes as ¿my father.¿ This leaves the reader feeling very disconnected. (This is fitting since connection is a dominant theme in the novel). The reader struggles to keep characters and family relationships straight and to make meaning, groping through chapter after disconnected chapter until all the pieces fall into place, and the whole picture is revealed. Throughout the novel, McDermott raises issues related to love, faith, truth, and connection. The threads the author slowly weaves together are a re-creation of Billy¿s life and a contemplation of his unwavering faith. The reader is compelled to question this faith again and again. Perhaps faith, love, and even heaven are all merely constructions, ¿well intentioned deceptions¿ meant to ease the pain of living (p. 211). After the uncertainty and disconnection of the entire novel, the final chapter focuses on what is constant, the things one is surrounded by that ¿ride out time¿ (p. 237). To achieve this effect, McDermott describes the summerhouse on Long Island in Polaroid detail. In this feeling of consistency and connection, the reader is invited to draw his or her own conclusions about faith, love, and connection, but of course, the author concludes her story with a question and not answer, leaving the reader not quite satisfied and unable to quickly forget the issues raised by the novel.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 1, 2004

    Brilliant

    I have read Charming Billy twice and always try to persuade people to read it. The opening pages got me. I knew these people. I know a Billy and the rest of the characters. I have been to the funeral lunch. The descriptions is this book were beautifully crafted. It was written with compassion for human faults, forgiveness, denial and of course, love.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 17, 2003

    Outstanding!

    I enjoyed this book immensly.The way the charachters are woven together is wonderful. I found the story touching and emotional. I plan on reading it again!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 22, 2001

    A warm, compassionate story.

    This is the sad story of Billy Lynch, a kind, gentle Irish-American man whose heart was broken by an Irish girl who instead of marrying him, went back to Ireland. Billy used all of his energies to preserve the romantic, poetic, and unrealistic world he had constructed for himself. Everybody liked Billy, he had a gift for making friends and keeping them. He was a dreamer and a trusting man, who also, unfortunately, drank a great deal. Billy was an alcoholic as we learn on about the third page of the story, but a lovable, charming one. Billy was trapped in his culture, in his impractical poet's mind, and in the bottle. This book captures the nuances of Irish-American workingclass culture perfectly. It portrays a people who are kind, generous and at heart, all good people. The book also tells the story of internal loyalties and of good deeds gone wrong that sometimes result in unforseen consequences. A wonderful read. The novel Charming Billy is brilliantly constructed and beautifully and sensitively told.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 11, 2001

    Strong theme

    I have read all the reviews posted and do agree that this book can be confusing. However, this book was not meant to be a strong plot book. Instead it is one of strong themes. Each person whose life Billy had touched has their own perspective of Billy and hence their own reality including Billy's own reality. This is the kind of book that needs a discussion group after reading. The theme is strong and warrents some consideration.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 28, 2000

    well captured look at sad, irish family

    this book is beautifully written but the subject is sad and disturbing. Even so, I enjoyed reading it and examining the motives and actions of this Irish clan.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 5, 2011

    Horrible

    I managed to painfully get through it...but do not waste your time. Boring and plotless.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 22, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Incredibly Boring

    While Billy may have charmed everyone around him to make up for being a lush McDermott did nothing but annoy me and turn me off from the rest of her books.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 19, 2002

    BORING!

    This books entire story line was revealed in the first chapter and did not get any more exciting from there. The jumping from present to different points in the past made it confusing but not hard to follow, just irritating. I did not feel sorry for Billy (if that was even what the book was trying to express). It made me frustrated that some people were blaming everyone else (except Billy) for Billy's disease.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 14, 2000

    Good story, flawed structure

    The presentation of this interesting and thought-provoking tale is flawed by its annoying backward-looping structure, which detracts from and makes it hard follow the story's chronology. On page 5 it becomes apparent that the story's narrator is the daughter of one of the main characters (Dennis). Later we understand that her audience is Matt (the boyfriend she later marries) who is barely mentioned. For determined and careful readers, the story is worth the effort.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 16, 2000

    Outstanding Story, Questionable Structure

    A touching portrayal of an Irish-Catholic family dealing with grief,loyalty, dishonesty,denial,faith,alcoholism and a strong sense of compassion--this story appeals to both intellect and emotion. The backward looping first-person narration, however, is often awkward and annoying. The structure makes it unnecessarily difficult to follow the story's frequent shifts of time, place,and character.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 16, 2000

    Why did this book receive so many awards?

    This is one of the first books I've started reading and refused to finish. I could not get into the characters and I found confusing to even figure out what was going on.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 8, 2000

    Superb, I think!

    Readers will differ in their expectations (see the other reviews!), but I found this novel superb -- the tactics of presentation, spinning the story of Billy to readers as a mosaic of discovered facts. I find the 'Irishness' convincing, rounded. Yes, the order of events is sometimes confusing, as we discover new information to put beside with earlier information. But that's the essence of such tales -- the structure of gossip and gradual, unfolding discovery. Read that opening chapter for superb management of character and scene.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 9, 1999

    Slow-moving

    Being Irish, I thought I could really identify with this book having read the great reviews but I'm afraid I was disappointed. It's difficult to identify much with any of the characters. I think the initial storyline was good but reading it became tedious after a while.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 23, 2008

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted June 29, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted February 13, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted January 8, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted February 7, 2014

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted March 8, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

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