A novel toast of the holidays Success: The popularity of Alice McDermott's "Charming Billy" suggests there remains a sizable audience for literary novels.

January 01, 1999|By Tom Pelton and SUN STAFF

Customers have ripped it off the shelves, fought over it, thrown tantrums when clerks have told them it's sold out.

"Charming Billy," a quiet work of literature by local author Alice McDermott, has been in such intense demand since it won the National Book Award in November that it was absent from the shelves of almost every bookstore in the region during the holiday shopping crush.

Louie's Bookstore Cafe on North Charles Street has sold out twice in the past month. Bibelot bookstore in Timonium has 42 people waiting for it. At Border's in Towson, the waiting list has 25 names.

Stores elsewhere in the country also report strong sales, but Charm City has a frustrated passion for "Charming Billy."

"People are fighting over copies of the book, just pulling them off the shelves," said Kara Jackson, a manager of the Barnes & Noble at the Inner Harbor. "Customers come in here, really frazzled, and say, `When are you going to get it?' They are very upset, no matter what excuse you give them."

Publishing industry veterans say it's not unusual for serious works of literature with modest print runs to sell out after winning the kind of extensive press coverage McDermott received for beating the more famous Tom Wolfe for the National Book Award.

But McDermott, a professor of creative writing at the Johns Hopkins University, said she finds it ironic that her story about a drunk who dies in the streets of Queens, N.Y., his face blackened and disfigured by alcohol, has become this holiday season's shopping sensation, like a Tickle Me Elmo doll.

"A friend of mine said he was in Manhattan before Christmas, bouncing from one bookstore after another, being told everywhere that the book is not available," said the 45-year-old Bethesda resident. "He said he felt like he was looking for a Furby."

This holiday gift is more tombstone than Beanie Baby.

"I told my publisher, `Are you nuts? This is not a Christmas book! Who is going to give somebody a present about a dead alcoholic?' " McDermott said. "But now I guess it's a hot holiday gift."

The tiny Irish-American writer with huge eyes and a broad smile laughed when she reflected on her book's success. She sat at a table in the Barnes & Noble in Bethesda, one of only a few places "Charming Billy" can be found these days, because the store made special arrangements last month with New York-based publisher Farrar, Straus & Giroux to accommodate one of McDermott's readings.

Above her table in the bookstore's cafe glower the portraits of other authors who wrote about grim subjects only to find gloomy sales. Franz Kafka, his face white as paper, puffs a cigarette, the collar of his overcoat flipped up as he seems to look down on McDermott in disbelief.

But McDermott sees hope for writers and readers in the fact that her novel has already sold out its 80,000-book print run, with a roughly 100,000-copy paperback version due in bookstores in mid-January.

McDermott attributes much of the recent stampede for her year-old book to the National Book Award. But she also believes the robust sales of "Charming Billy" disprove the theory that publishers can profit only from celebrities.

"I think this shows that being a small, quiet, literary novel is no longer the kiss of death for sales," McDermott said. "Publishers are realizing they do not need to dumb-down to sell books. The reading public is a healthy entity."

McDermott's fourth novel, "Charming Billy" tells the story of Billy Lynch, a gregarious but sodden Irish-American utility worker from Queens, haunted most of his life by the loss of an ex-fiancee.

Billy and Eva spent a summer together on the beaches of Long Island when they were in their 20s. But she returned to her native Ireland, supposedly with the intention of coming back when Billy earned enough money to pay for her permanent move to America.

But after Billy sent her the money, she stopped writing. Billy heard from his cousin that she suddenly died of pneumonia at age 26.

The book opens with Billy's wake. He drank himself to death in middle age, married to another woman but always dreaming of "The Irish Girl." Billy's friends debate whether his alcoholism was genetic or caused by his near-religious devotion to the dead Eva.

It is as the wake ends that the reader learns that Eva never died, and that both she and Billy's cousin -- who is also Billy's best friend -- subjected him to a "well-intentioned deception." The book explores the relationship between Billy's lifelong faith and the lies of those he loved the most.

McDermott's editor and publisher, Jonathan Galassi of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, said writers who win the National Book Award often enjoy an increase in sales. But he said it is rare for them to sell out in as many areas of the country as McDermott has.

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