Books: Sorry for his troubles

Charming Billy by Alice McDermott Bloomsbury, pounds 15.99, 280pp; Wendy Brandmark joins the wake for a man of faith
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THIS ELEGIAC novel begins after a funeral, the mourners settling down to lunch in a dim Bronx bar and grill. Billy drank himself to death, his face so swollen and dark that his cousin Dennis, called down to the hospital to identify the body, did not at first recognise him: "But this is a coloured man." Billy's friends and relatives gather around his widow Maeve to remember Billy and give her solace, but even the priest, whose ease with death makes the others feel that their efforts are inadequate, cannot restore her faith. She wants the real Billy, not some promise of redemption and a saintly version of the drunken man she carried to bed.

But Billy himself spent much of his life mourning for an idealised woman. He and Dennis met two Irish girls on Long Island after the war, one a nanny for a rich family, the other her sister Eva. Eva went back to Ireland but Billy intended to marry her, sending her money, a ring and constant letters. Like her namesake, she was the first and only woman for him, beautiful because he thought her untouched. But she married a homeboy in Ireland, used Billy's money to buy a gas station and never wrote to tell him. When Dennis discovered the truth, he could not bear to see his cousin's faith shattered, so he told him that Eva died, a lie which twists Billy's life.

Even though he marries, he remains faithful to Eva until some 30 years later, when on a trip to Ireland he meets her again. Dennis regrets his lie, but believes Billy "would have found something else to moon about when he drank." Billy's faith, his longing for transcendence, made him uncomfortable in the real world. However many vows he made to quit, he returned to drink because he could not transform mortal life into a piece of eternity.

But this is not just Billy's story. The novel takes the shape of an extended Irish wake with family and friends arguing about free will and destiny, exchanging and revising memories. Everyone speaks fondly of Dennis's father, a streetcar conductor famous for his humour and generosity who opened his house to needy Irish immigrants, yet Dennis remembers that his mother desperately wanted a room of her own. Maeve, the quiet, plain woman, is the image of self-effacing goodness, but in their stories she seems to insinuate herself into two men's lives. It is as if McDermott moves a camera round the table, until what begins as pieces of conversation, flashes of memory becomes a film of the life of this Irish-American community.

Charming Billy, Alice McDermott's fourth novel and winner of the 1998 US National Book Award, is written without a cliche or mannerism. Its quiet success owes much to her affectionate portrait of Billy and confident handling of the complex relationships which both reveal him and make his life a myth. She writes with ease, as if the novel emerged all at one sitting much like a tale exchanged over one long night.

The story begins to sound contrived in the concluding pages. It turns out that Dennis's daughter married the son of the man who rented her grandmother's house on Long Island. Dennis himself marries again to the woman he believe he wronged. Yet the arguments about faith and fate which pulse through the novel cannot be contained by a neat ending.