Charming Billy

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Billy Lynch was what the Irish might call a “darling man.” He had a superabundance of charm and wit. He had been sufficiently touched by sorrow to project a beguiling aura of longing, loss, and melancholy. He never realized that ironically the tragedy that gave him his major excuse for drinking as much as he did was a deception.

The young Billy fell in love with Eva, an Irish colleen visiting her sister in New York. Eva returned to Ireland, now engaged to Billy, who subsequently sent her money for passage back to the United States to marry him. Unbeknownst to Billy, however, Eva married someone else in Ireland and used the five hundred dollars Billy sent her as down payment on a petrol station.

Billy’s cousin and closest friend, Dennis Lynch, discovers what Eva has done. Not wanting to break Billy’s heart, he manufactures a story to spare his cousin’s feelings: Eva, according to Dennis, contracted pneumonia and died. Billy went through the next thirty years mourning this loss, which cast a shadow upon his eventual marriage to Maeve, who survives him, and giving him the necessary justification for his tippling, in which he had indulged before Eva entered his life.

Alice McDermott has crafted a marvelous story in CHARMING BILLY. She has brought together three generations of a working-class Irish American family whose members deal with the problems that characterize such families, particularly alcoholism, borderline poverty, and a fading sense of identity. Her characters are as accessible and convincing as any in recent fiction. CHARMING BILLY received the 1998 National Book Award in Fiction.

Sources for Further Study

America. CLXXVIII, May 9, 1998, p. 23.

The Antioch Review. LVI, Fall, 1998, p. 494.

Booklist. XCIV, December 15, 1997, p. 683.

Commonweal. CXXV, March 27, 1998, p. 10.

Library Journal. CXXII, November 1, 1997, p. 116.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. January 1, 1998, p. 10.

The Nation. CCLXVII, November 23, 1998, p. 27.

The New York Times Book Review. CIII, January 11, 1998, p. 8.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIV, October 6, 1997, p. 73.

Time. CLI, January 12, 1998, p. 92.

Charming Billy

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

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...

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Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

World War II

The world experienced a decade of aggression in the 1930s that culminated in World War II (1939–45)....

(The entire section is 547 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

Multiple Narratives

The novel presents an intricate narrative design made up of stories told by friends and...

(The entire section is 226 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

  • Some reviewers have noted a similarity between Jay Gatsby and Billy Lynch. Read The Great Gatsby (1925) and then write an essay...

(The entire section is 101 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

  • An audio version of the novel read by Roses Prichard is available as of 2005 from Books on Tape.

(The entire section is 18 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

  • John Millington Synge's 1907 play The Playboy of the Western World, which addresses the theme of illusion and reality, focuses on...

(The entire section is 100 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)


Cooper, Rand Richards, "Charming Alice: A Unique Voice in American Fiction," in Commonweal, March 27, 1998,...

(The entire section is 205 words.)