McDermott's Billy: unraveling a legacy

January 04, 1998|By Chris Kridler | Chris Kridler,Sun staff

"Charming Billy," by Alice McDermott. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 256 pages. $21.

Alice McDermott is a writer of such exquisitely detailed observations that every anecdote in "Charming Billy" is like a photograph in a family album.

Her latest novel doesn't lasso the reader with a powerful plot that pulls strongly toward the end of the book. Instead, it invites slow and satisfying rumination. Framed by a funeral, Billy's, the story deciphers not just him but his entire extended Irish-American family. The reader browses through McDermott's snapshots, noticing a shoe here, a bottle there, until the story is complete.

The story, in brief, is that beloved Billy has at last died from his beloved booze. A determined alcoholic since he was told his Irish fiancee had died, he has lived a life of longing and self-abuse even as he's married the most understanding woman in the world. And his story has touched everyone else; "the Irish girl" has taken on almost legendary dimensions, giving everyone in the family both a forgiving compassion for Billy and a kind of hope inspired by the purity of his love.

Before the tragedy, his cousin Dennis "saw what Billy's fine dream, Billy's faith, was going to come to. But he also saw, in his own ... romantic heart, that its consummation would become a small redemption for them all."

Dennis is the key to Billy's little legend; Dennis' secret knowledge of "the Irish girl" alters not only the way Billy sees the world but the way the world sees Billy. Lives are fundamentally changed as a result. And Dennis' daughter, the unobtrusive narrator, uses the secret to link together one character portrait after another.

There's her own dead mother; Billy's widow; Dennis' practical stepfather; Dennis' prickly mother and his generous father, a sponsor of immigrants; a supporting cast of Irish-American cousins; and a Long Island cottage that is a stage for the most important moments in their lives.

McDermott's novel, which spins casually between past and present, is a family tree whose branches are so gnarled that one sometimes longs for a diagram. Confusion is a minor distraction, however, in such a delicately assembled and wistful scrapbook. A few of McDermott's words can capture a sound, an image, from simple brush strokes - "The ring of the leash. Water running in the sink and the dog bowl being placed on the linoleum" - to character-revealing peculiarities: "Her mother, all false courage, touched her father's back, the hem of his coat, as he went out, saving the intake of breath, the sign of the cross, for the moment she saw him gain the street."

The book is a quiet pleasure to read not because it has a driving plot (it assuredly doesn't) but because it unravels the emotional legacy passed from one generation to the next. Take a seat at this funeral, and you may hear your own relatives telling their stories of love and loss.

Chris Kridler is assistant arts and entertainment editor at The Sun. Her work has appeared in The Sun, The Maryland Poetry Review, Premiere and other publications.

Pub Date: 1/04/98

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