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Wendy Perkins

(Novels for Students)

Perkins is a professor of American and English literature and film. In this essay, Perkins examines the tensions between illusion and reality in the novel.

Alice Mcdermott's celebrated novel, Charming Billy opens at a funeral luncheon, where forty-seven friends and relatives gather to mourn and to reminisce about Billy Lynch in a Bronx restaurant that could have been taken from a scene in an Irish play by John Millington Synge. The setting, however, is not the only touch of the Irish in the novel. The particular sensibility that Alice Mcdermott infuses throughout Charming Billy reflects what John Millington Synge calls in his preface to his play, The Playboy of the Western World, a "popular [Irish] imagination that is fiery and magnificent, and tender." The Irish penchant for employing the imagination in the telling of stories becomes the focus of the novel as Mcdermott explores the lure of the creative rendering of experience as well as its inevitable clash with reality.

As Billy's friends and relatives gather together at his funeral, each of them feels compelled to tell"the story of his life, or the story they would begin to re-create for him this afternoon." Their versions often conflict with each other, as they focus on love and loss, delusion, and reality. Thrown out of focus by time and private agendas, their colorful stories ask a central question that examines the book's title. Was Billy a charming personality or is the portrait that is created a charming recreation of him? Mcdermott delineates this tension between imagination and reality when, at the end of the first chapter, after she has given voice to several of these stories, she ends with the truth about the central lie of the book—Eva, the love of Billy's life, never died.

Rand Richards Cooper in his article for Commonweal writes: "Mcdermott frames Billy's life story in ironies, stinting neither the cost nor the complexity of his romanticism." Billy's cousin, Dennis reveals the irony that sets the tone for the entire book when he tells the others about his first view of Billy's corpse. He notes that Billy's face was "bloated to twice its size and his skin was [so] dark brown" from alcoholism that Dennis could not recognize him at first, insisting when he saw the body, "But this is a colored man." This amalgam of illusion and reality begins the novel's examination of Billy and its illustration of the difficulties inherent in the attempt to gain an objective view of reality.

Much of the talk at the funeral focuses on Billy's drinking and its cause. The guests argue over whether Billy's alcoholism was inevitable, springing from an Irish propensity for drink or from his tragic love for Eva. Dennis and his daughter, who as the central narrator tries to weave together all of the stories about Billy into an accurate portrait of him, wrestle with a more complex issue concerning Billy's love for Eva. Was Billy destroyed by Eva's failure to return from Ireland or by Dennis's lie about her having died?...

(The entire section is 8,813 words.)