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Friday, June 22, 2007

A group of friends and family gather after Billy Lynch’s funeral to remember and mourn Billy, a much-loved and gregarious man who nevertheless was an alcoholic and drank himself to death. His is a large and varied Irish-American family. Dennis is Billy’s cousin, in many ways more like his brother; it fell to him to visit the morgue to identify Billy, found in the street after a night of drinking. It falls to Dennis’ daughter, the unnamed female narrator (a favorite device of McDermott’s), to probe and chronicle the remains of his life – the memories, still living, that others have of him. What emerges is a bittersweet series of reflections about Billy, not chronological, yet still natural and orderly, and interwoven with events in her own life and her father’s. The tone is pensive and compassionate.

This novel was not particularly religious, but one idea voiced by Billy himself was pointedly Christian. Grappling with the death of his fiancée, Billy says that death is a terrible thing, a scandal. To be reconciled to the fact of death, to treat it as an ordinary, natural event is to invalidate Christ’s death on the cross. If death isn’t horrible, then why did the Lord go to such great pains to conquer and eradicate it? Billy’s thinking here was reasoned and insightful. But he erred on the opposite side, I think, by refusing to proceed with life as he had previously and instead making it his business to continually wallow in the horrow of death. Hence, the drinking. His actions seemed to reveal his doubts about the redemptive power of Christ’s work. He was so consumed by the injustice of death that he became indifferent to his own death in order to escape the knowledge of it.

Weaving through the book is the question about how Billy's life would have been different if he had found out that his fiancee didn't actually die. Dennis knew that Eva merely refused to return to Billy, but told him that she had died, because he thought that would be an easier pill to swallow. Billy's subsequent statements about the injustice of Eva's death ostensibly define the cause of his alcoholism, but they could merely be artifacts of the drinking. Did Dennis' untruth form the basis of Billy's alcoholism, or was it inevitable? We'll never know, but it does constitute a warning about shielding others from the truth, even in love.

As in That Night, the characters here struggle with a need to have their love “make a difference.” Some are tempted to view Billy’s death as a failure of their own affections and voice their fear that their love hasn’t mattered, that love in general wins no victories over suffering and death. The book doesn’t present a particular resolution to this dilemma, though most characters (except Billy) continue to love and enjoy what they can in life.

Title:Charming Billy
Author:Alice McDermott
Date published:1998
Number of pages:280
Notes:National Book Award, 1998


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