Alice McDermott's striking novel, Charming Billy, is a study of the lies that bind and the weight of familial love, of the way good intentions can be as destructive as the truth they were meant to hide.
Billy Lynch's family and friends have gathered to comfort his widow, and to pay their respects to one of the last great romantics. As they trade tales of his famous humor, immense charm, and consuming sorrow, a complex portrait emerges of an enigmatic man, a loyal friend, a beloved husband, an incurable alcoholic.
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About the Author
Date of Birth:June 27, 1953
Place of Birth:Brooklyn, New York
Education:B.A., State University of New York-Oswego, 1975; M.A., University of New Hampshire, 1978
Read an Excerpt
Excerpt from Charming Billy by Alice McDermott. Copyright © 1997 by Alice McDermott. To be published in December, 1997 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.
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 openit being a regular business dayfor 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 inthe 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 nowperhaps inspired by the perfect simplicity of what she worethat 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 couragemore appropriate to the occasion and the daynot 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, ormost likelyall 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 newwhich 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 herselfhad 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 hereor 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 postmarkJune 1975and 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 agesecond 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. HoltzmanSaturdays 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 warI 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 honeymoonremember 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.
Reading Group Guide
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 faithwhich 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 to 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?