Forty-seven friends and relations have gathered for the funeral and burial of Billy Lynch, a charming Irish American with a drinking problem who, at age sixty, has finally drunk himself to death. Set initially in the Bronx in a remote tavern with an ambiance resembling that of an Irish pub, the novel’s action takes place on the day of Billy’s funeral and on the two days following it. In reminiscing about him, those who gather to mourn him take the reader back as far as World War II; in so doing, they create a convincing persona who, despite his physical absence, is the novel’s protagonist.
In this novel, her fourth, Alice McDermott deals with many of the topics she has considered in the past: the power of sexual desire, the ironies of fate, memories of lost worlds, the seemingly contradictory illusiveness and constancy of time, and the effects of community on its inhabitants. In none of her previous novels has McDermott been in quite such masterful control of her material as she is in Charming Billy, although in Weddings and Wakes (1992), she moves in the direction of this novel, which won the 1998 National Book Award in Fiction.
Billy Lynch represents a type of Irish American, a sentimental, often melancholy fellow who worked in a routine job for Consolidated Edison. Liquor has been his solace in a life that has known hardship, loss, and sorrow. The loss Billy has mourned for three decades is that of Eva Kavanaugh, an Irish girl he met when she came to New York to visit her sister, Mary.
Billy fell in love with Eva, and by the time she returned to Ireland to look after her elderly parents, the two were engaged to be married. Eva promised to return to Billy, who subsequently sent her five hundred dollars to pay the passage back to the United States. Although he sent Eva two or three letters a week, as time went on, he heard nothing from her.
Before long, Billy’s cousin and closest friend, Dennis Lynch, received a call from Eva’s sister, who needed to see him. When they met, she revealed to Dennis that Eva had married someone in Ireland and had spent the five hundred dollars Billy sent her to make a down payment on a petrol station outside Clonmel, where she lived. Not wanting to break Billy’s heart, Dennis told his cousin that Eva had died of pneumonia in Ireland. When Billy suggested that he should visit her grave, Dennis discouraged him from doing so by saying that such a visit would only revive sad memories for Eva’s parents. Instead, Billy wrote to them and told them to keep the five hundred dollars he had sent to help with Eva’s final expenses. He continued to write to them every Christmas and in September, the month of her supposed death, but never received responses to his letters.
The shadow of Eva’s death hung heavily over Billy for thirty years, until in 1975, when back in Ireland to take the pledge of abstinence, he met Eva and learned of Dennis’s deception. Billy had married Maeve in the early 1950’s. His marriage was clouded by his memories of Eva and by his undying devotion to her memory. The melancholy that these memories evoked gave Billy the excuse he needed for drowning his sorrows in liquor, which he had happily consumed in substantial quantities even before Eva entered his life. Billy was generally an affable rather than a belligerent drunk. He came by his alcoholism honestly through a host of alcoholic progenitors.
Billy’s death was somewhat easier than much of his life had been, although, in his coffin, his face was bloated from his excessive drinking. When Dennis went to identify the corpse in the Veterans’ Administration Hospital where Billy had been taken and where had died three hours after he fell in the street, its skin was so dark that Dennis said to the attendant, “But this is a colored man.” After a bout of drinking, he collapsed on the pavement, suffering an internal hemorrhage that filled his stomach with blood and quickly rendered him unconscious.
McDermott unfolds her story through an unnamed, enigmatic narrator, Dennis Lynch’s daughter, who flies in from Seattle for Billy’s funeral. Readers learn little about the narrator except that she has a college education and has married Matt West, son of a man who had rented the Long Island cottage of Dennis’s mother when he walked out on his wife and three sons many years earlier.
Dennis always believed that if the cottage his mother inherited from her second husband had not been available, West would not have deserted his family. He assuaged his conscience, however, by telling himself that when he sold his house in Rosedale and retired to the cottage, West would return to his wife, which...