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Charming Billy

By Alice McDermott

Charming Billy is American Alice McDermott’s fourth novel, and won last year’s National Book Award. Beginning in 1983 with the funeral of captivating alcoholic Billy Lynch, who has died of the drink, it tells his story and that of his family and friends, who have gathered at a small Bronx bar to comfort his widow, and to eulogise this man of immense humour and charm who harboured an unfathomable sorrow. The experiences that made him what he was are unfolded in flashbacks, as the mourners try to explain his life and come to terms with his death.

The unnamed, unobtrusive narrator is the daughter of Billy’s cousin, Dennis, and her spare, plain style with occasional anaphoric echoes gradually reveals how Billy was let down by his first love, Eva, whom he met on Long Island with Dennis just after WW2. An Irish nanny, Eva returned home, and when Billy borrowed and sent her the money to rejoin him as his fiancée, she used it to put a down payment on a gas station in Clonmel, and marry a local mechanic. When breaking the bad news to Billy, Dennis diplomatically lied, saying Eva had died of pneumonia. Billy only learned the truth on a trip to Ireland in 1975, when he went to take the pledge, and visit her grave. In the meantime, he had married the long-suffering Maeve, a plain girl who already had an alcoholic father to look after, and who relied increasingly on Dennis, calling him many nights for assistance with getting her drunken husband to bed.

The ‘alcoholism as genetic disease versus alcoholism as decision influenced by life events’ argument is touched upon, with elderly uncle Dan Lynch opining, ‘What’s nonsense is all this disease business...maybe for some people it’s a disease. But maybe for some there are things that happen in their lives that they just can’t live with. Things that take the sweetness out of everything.’ Was losing Eva the cause, or an excuse?

AA didn’t work for Billy, since, ‘He didn’t buy this getting up and admitting that each and every one of them, every drunk, is exactly the same. He didn’t buy this trying to freeze people out in order to make them quit, either.’ At a time when all stripes of counsellors and therapists are swamping such debate with facts and figures and theories, any more imaginative approach is to be welcomed. There is, after all, something inherently ludicrous about all academic discourse on addiction, just as there is nothing funnier than po-faced ‘scientific’ writing about sexuality, and not just when it is statistical, but also when it attempts to describe the experience itself.

Charming Billy is not a definitive fictive study of dipsomania, since it lacks the depth and density of Malcolm Lowry’s great inside job, Under The Volcano. While it may perpetuate some clichés and stereotypes about the Irish-American community (how does its alcohol consumption compare with that of, say, Italian or Hispanic Americans?), it is still a gentle, poignant and, ultimately, charming read.

First published in The Sunday Tribune


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