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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...

(The entire section is 3,244 words.)