By Alice McDermott
Original Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Current Publisher: Dial Press (Random House, Inc.)
Alice Elliott Dark writes:
The structure of Charming Billy is seemingly simple, a back and forth in time that tells the story of Billy Lynch, a beloved alcoholic member of a tight knit Long Island community of Irish descent, from the moment of his death to the moment of his falling in love to the moment of his learning the truth about what became of Eva, the Irish girl he wanted to marry. McDermott names the book after a well known song with the same title—Charming Billy loves “a young girl who cannot leave her mother,” as it says in the chorus. McDermott interprets the mother to be the mother country, Ireland. Billy sends Eva the money to come back to the States and be his wife, but she keeps his $500 and uses it to start a business with another man. Billy’s brother Dennis is the one who's told about this. He's asked to tell Billy, but instead he invents a story that Eva died, to spare Billy the pain of feeling jilted. It’s a loving gesture, but it doesn’t take into account Billy’s romantic nature and what a person like him will do with the notion of a love lost to death—which is to nurture his heartbreak rather than his life.
It’s a good story as is--but the way McDermott reveals it knocks me out. Her sentence structure, the sensual details, the sensation of having a full picture of these people by means of gesture and glimpse—it’s incredibly brilliant. We all have books that rededicate us to the fantastic powers of fiction, and this is one of mine. McDermott makes the point that when a person’s life story is fully told they may become more mysterious—easy to say, but when fiction brings you to a realization like this, when an author can make this happen inside of you—there’s nothing like it.
As with all truly great writing, what happens between one sentence and the next is where the reader falls completely in love with the author. I have looked at this book lots of times and still marvel at what she writes and what she skips. How does she do it? I can’t begin to say how happy I was when this book won the National Book Award. Subtlety and beauty don’t always get the recognition they deserve.
Alice Elliott Dark was a National Book Awards judge in 2002.
Katie McDonough writes:
Charming Billy is, appropriately, one of the most charming books I’ve ever read. But its charm, beauty, and lovingly selected details are not nearly the whole of its value. Instead, one of my favorite aspects is the theme of art versus life that runs throughout. On the surface, the title character, Billy Lynch, is your standard jovial, blue-collar Irish-American who works at Con Ed and who forms an unfortunate but not-at-all-shocking attachment to “the drink.” But Billy is different. Different from the other boys bellied up to the bar at Quinlan’s, and different, particularly, from Dennis, his stoic and unfathomably loyal brother-like cousin. Billy spontaneously recites Yeats to whoever is listening. Billy writes letters to loved ones on bar napkins and actually mails them. But Billy also covets a future that is so impossibly romantic that it could never, ever come to fruition. With a terminal case of too-high expectations, Billy is doomed to suffer.
And so the reader feels sorry for him, desperately urges him to pick himself up and get over that girl, who was just a girl after all. But the loss of his first love lays a shadow over the rest of his life, over all the people who love him and who are forced to watch him slowly “kill himself”—the drink, of course—one day at a time. “You’ve been done more harm than good by your poetry,” the wise and rational Dennis says to him. But Billy can’t hear such a statement. If he could, he wouldn’t be Billy.
Yet just as the reader becomes despondent, McDermott pulls back the veil and reveals the truth—life—which is, in its way, superior to any art that may imitate (or glorify) it. Billy’s tragic story becomes the reason why two new young lovers meet, and thus, the circle of life is restored to honor. The last page leaves you with this thought: “Their faith, both of them—all of them, I suppose—was no less keen than their suspicion that in the end they might be proven wrong. And their certainty that they would continue to believe anyway.”
As I read the story of Billy Lynch, I was reminded of a passage from Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity: “What came first—the music or the misery? Did I listen to music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to music?” As someone who has always imbibed far too much literature and music to ever be completely satisfied with her own day-to-day life, I can appreciate this predicament. But even when it throws a spotlight on the things we lack, the things we desperately desire, how can we say no to art? I’ll take the small, bright, fleeting treasures—treasures like this book—any day of the week. Life’s just not worth living without them.
Katie McDonough is Program Assistant at the National Book Foundation and a nonfiction creative writing student in the MFA program at The New School.
Fiction Finalists that Year:
- Allegra Goodman for Kaaterskill Falls
- Gayl Jones for The Healing
- Robert Stone for Damascus Gate
- Tom Wolfe for A Man in Full
Fiction Judges that Year:
Thomas Mallon, Fernanda Eberstadt, Lois Rosenthal, Ursula Hegi, Rafael Yglesias
The Year in Literature:
- American Pastoral by Philip Roth won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
- José Saramago won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Previous to this win, Alice McDermott was a National Book Award Finalist in 1987 for her second novel, That Night, which was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. A film version of That Night was produced by Warner Bros. and released in 1992.
- Alice McDermott's NBA Acceptance Speech
- Alice McDermott's Profile and Interview from
The Book That Changed My Life: Interviews with National Book Award Winners and Finalists
Edited by Diane Osen
- Alice McDermott's Wikipedia Entry
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