Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1257
Charming Billy spans three generations of Irish Americans living in Queens, New York, from World War II to the end of the twentieth century. The narrator, whose first name is not given, is the grown daughter of Billy's best friend and cousin, Dennis. She has come home to...
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Charming Billy spans three generations of Irish Americans living in Queens, New York, from World War II to the end of the twentieth century. The narrator, whose first name is not given, is the grown daughter of Billy's best friend and cousin, Dennis. She has come home to support her father after Billy is found dying in the street. She begins the story at a funeral party in the Bronx, in 1982, where forty-seven friends and relatives have gathered to mourn and to reminisce about Billy Lynch.
Dennis takes charge of the arrangements for Maeve, Billy's widow, making sure that the party runs smoothly. The narrator begins her description of Billy, an alcoholic who greatly taxed those who loved him, which includes everyone in the room. At this point, Dennis's daughter shares the narrative with various members of the party, who offer their personal memories of Billy.
Their talk turns to Eva, the girl whom Billy loved first and hoped to marry. He met her one summer on Long Island after he and Dennis returned from the war. Eva had been helping her sister Mary with her duties as a nanny for a wealthy family on the island. At the end of the summer, Eva went back to Ireland with Billy's ring to wait for him to have enough money to send for her. After taking on a second job, Billy sent $500 to her. Kate, Billy's sister, remembers that Mary called Dennis soon after and told him that Eva had died of pneumonia, which Dennis then relayed to Billy. It was a blow that the relatives thought he would never endure.
Eventually, he met and married Maeve, whom many thought would be his salvation, but the narrator notes that she "was only a faint consolation, a futile attempt to mend an irreparably broken heart. A moment's grace, a flash of optimism, not enough for a lifetime." They then discuss and argue about his drinking, which increased over the years into full-fledged alcoholism. His sister Rosemary insists alcoholism is a disease and so was not a result of his weakness, but Dan Lynch argues that he would not have drunk himself to death if Eva had not died, noting that Billy had told him "that every year was a weight on his shoulders."
At the end of the party, Dennis admits to his daughter, "Here's the most pathetic part of all. Eva never died. It was a lie." He then takes over the narrative to tell Billy's story, moving back and forth from past to present. He explains that what Mary had actually told him was that Eva had married her hometown sweetheart and kept Billy's money to make a down payment on a gas station. Dennis, fearing that Billy would be devastated by that news, determined that it would be easier for him to think that she died than to know she rejected him for another man.
Dennis tells his daughter that Billy found out that he had lied when Billy decided to make a trip in 1975 to Ireland, where he found Eva married with four children. He admits to her, "it's a bad business. A lie like that," and notes that neither he nor Billy ever told anyone the truth about Eva. Dennis then describes how hard it was for him when his wife died.
Dennis's daughter takes over the narrative, explaining that the Long Island house where Dennis and Billy first met Eva and Mary had been owned by Mr. Holtzman, her grandmother's second husband. She describes her grandmother in her father's words, "the most unsentimental woman he had ever known or heard of," with a single-minded devotion to the truth. Yet, she had convinced Dennis to try to bring Billy out to the Long Island house again, sure that the experience would help him get over Eva.
The narrator moves back and forth in time, filling in bits of Billy's story as it was connected to the Long Island house. She explains that when Billy came back from his trip to Ireland, he came to the house and told Dennis that he saw Eva there. The narrator then goes back to the time when Billy met Eva, noting that he fell in love with her immediately. His natural ability with children helped him impress her as he picked up one of the children in her charge who was crying and calmed him.
Eva became part of his vision of Long Island, representing to him a "golden future," an Eden. As the narrator recreates her version of Billy's proposal to Eva, she suggests that Eva was reluctant to promise to return to the United States, but Billy kept insisting that he would earn enough money to bring her entire family over as well.
The narrator then begins a long story of her grandmother's life, including her need to find something better for herself than the hard lives many Irish immigrants had found in America. Her grandfather, Daniel, had fallen in love with her grandmother, Sheila, in much the same way as Billy had with Eva—immediately. Sheila agreed to marry Daniel because he adored her and because he would be able to provide her with her own home.
Back in the present, Dennis tells his daughter that he got Mr. Holtzman to advance Billy the money to send Eva because it was taking Billy too long to save it. He admits that he got caught up in Billy's vision of the future and so decided then that when Billy married Eva, he would marry her sister Mary. Soon after, Mary told Dennis that Eva had married her childhood sweetheart in Ireland, and Dennis later broke off his relationship with Mary.
During this period, Maeve had summoned up the courage to go into Holtzman's shoe store, where Billy had been working to earn the money for Eva. Maeve had fallen in love with him. Billy responded sympathetically to Maeve, who had lost her mother when she was eight, and eventually the two married. The narrator describes the difficult life Maeve had lived, tending her alcoholic father and then later, taking care of Billy as his own alcoholism slowly destroyed him.
The narrator then returns to the present, as Maeve and some of those who had attended the funeral tell sad and humorous stories about Billy as they sit with her at her home. The narrator imagines how difficult it must have been for Billy to live with "the disappointment that lingered at his heart's core" all those years after he lost Eva, and how he drank to forget that disappointment.
The narrator notes how hard it was for Maeve to take care of him and the many nights she had to call Dennis for help in picking Billy up off the floor and getting him up to bed. In the present, Dan and Dennis discuss Billy's character and assess his relationship with Maeve. Dennis remembers the sorrow he felt over the death of his own wife.
Dennis then relates the details Billy told him about his meeting with Eva and he and his daughter try to evaluate Billy's life. The narrator closes with a brief description of meeting her husband, the son of Holtzman's boarder at the Long Island house, and notes that her father eventually married Maeve. After trying to assess her father's and Billy's lives, she closes with an assertion that what is real and what is imagined does not make, "when you [get] right down to it, any difference at all."