Books: The closing of the bottle

Charming Billy by Alice MacDermott Bloomsbury pounds 15.99
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The Independent Culture
Billy is charming, a romantic with a way with words. But there is also another meaning to the title of this mesmerising tale, which captures the grief, guilt and emptiness left in the wake of Billy's death. For he was also a chronic alcoholic, charmed, appeased and enabled on his path to self-destruction by those around him.

His demise was slow but steady. "He had, at some point, ripped apart, plowed through, as alcoholics tend to do, the great, deep, tightly woven fabric of affection that was some part of the emotional life, the life of love, of everyone in the room." And each person has to accept their part in his downfall, their inability to keep him off drink, their collusion with his romantic notions of pure, first love.

When Billy was young and just home from the Second World War, he spent a summer on Long Island with his friend Dennis and fell in love with Eva, an Irish girl working as a nanny. It was a summer romance, a first fling, but for Billy it was true love. He wanted to marry her and promised to send her $500 to pay for her family's passage back to America to join him. When Eva married someone else and invested Billy's money in a gas station, Dennis couldn't bear to break his friend's heart by telling him the truth. Instead, he told him she had died of pneumonia and for 20 years that lie fed Billy's drink problem.

Some of the most touching scenes of the novel surround their friendship - the way Dennis would come round regularly late at night to help Maeve, Billy's wife, scoop him up off the floor, late-night conversations where Billy would pour out his grief. "Close up the bottle now, go upstairs to your wife," Dennis would say, never once summoning up the courage to tell him that Eva was alive and well. Billy has to discover this for himself when he travels to Ireland to visit her grave, calls into a gas station for directions and finds her there. The narrative switches effortlessly between that idyllic summer and the hours after Billy's funeral in a novel of perfect construction which won America's most prestigious prize, the National Book Award last year. We know the whole story in the first two chapters, yet McDermott gives each character, every aspect of the story greater depth with touches of breathtaking understanding of humanity. She never judges, but understands the complexities of human relationships.

Dennis was not malicious, merely foolish, doing what he thought was best. Maeve, apparently innocent of Billy's true love, falls in love with him when she sees him at work in a shoe store. She stands loyally beside him but unable to help him. "It's a terrible thing, father," she confesses to the priest after Billy's death, "to come this far in life only to find that nothing you've felt has made any difference".

There are scenes in this novel where the pace is slowed down so that every nuance of each character's actions can be described without being boring. It is as powerful as watching a film. We are there with them, we know and understand them intimately. And her generous understanding of the nature of the human spirit is uplifting in its reassurance. Their weaknesses could be our own. We have all failed friends at times.

"Billy didn't need someone to pour him his drinks," says Dennis, "he needed someone to tell him that living isn't poetry. It isn't prayer." We all want to believe in the power of true love, and Billy's romantic story filled the lives of those around him with a bit more colour. But "those of us who claim exclusivity in love do so with a liar's courage: there are a hundred opportunities, thousands over the years for a sense of falsehood to seep in."