"Give me books, French wine, fruit, fine weather, and a little music played out of doors by somebody I do not know." - John Keats

"You're not allowed to say anything about books because they're books and books are, you know, God." - Nick Hornby

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Review #10: Charming Billy, by Alice McDermott

Charming Billy is a quiet little novel that takes place over the course of one day at Billy Lynch's wake. Our narrator is the adult daughter of Billy's best friend Dennis, and she is telling the story to her husband, who isn't at the funeral. It's an unusual narration, and one that took me quite awhile to figure out, but it works within the context of the story.

The story begins at a bar after the funeral, where approximately fifty mourners have gathered to eat roast beef and raise one final pint to their dear friend. Snippets of conversation allow the reader to deduce that Billy, for all his charm, was a drunk. Maeve, his long-suffering wife, sits at the head of the table with Dennis, Billy's cousin and the family patriarch, at her side, ready to save her should she need a rescue. For that's Dennis' role in Billy and Maeve's life - in everyone's lives, really - but especially for Billy and Maeve: to pick up Billy. Dennis has picked up Billy from barroom floors, the street, his own kitchen floor, helping Maeve drag Billy upstairs and in to bed, and finally, the morgue, as it was Dennis they called to identify Billy when he was found.

But Billy was indeed charming, as addicts so often can be, and so Dennis returned time and again, and Maeve forgave him time and again, and his friends loved him time and again, even after he gave up on AA, even after he showed up sauced one too many times. Billy was larger than life, again, as addicts so often can be, writing letters and poetry, always slightly in mourning for his lost first love Eva, an Irish girl he met the summer after the war. Billy was to marry Eva, but she died of pneumonia before she could return to the States, and even though he married Maeve years later, he still carried a torch for Eva. 
McDermott explores a lot of themes in this short novel - family ties, family lies, hope, heartbreak, the enduring power of love, the destruction that good intentions can sometimes create, and I think there's more than a little bit of exploration about how well we lie to ourselves. Her prose is almost lyrical; I'm always in awe of writers who can string together phrases that sound like music. This is the type of book that you curl up with on a rainy afternoon and you don't resurface until you've finished it.
Billy didn't need someone to pour him his drinks, he needed someone to tell him that living isn't poetry. It isn't prayer. To tell him and convince him. And none of us could do it because every one of us thought that as long as Billy believed it was, as long as he kept himself believing it, then maybe it could still be true.

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