Irishness, Alice McDermott, Pascal's wager, elusive truth

On Books

January 17, 1999|By Michael Pakenham

Much has been written about "Charming Billy," by Alice McDermott (Farrar Straus, 280 pages, $22). On these pages a year ago, Chris Kridler hailed it for the "exquisitely detailed observations" that constitute "a delicately assembled and wistful scrapbook ... [that] unravels the emotional legacy passed from one generation to the next." Nearly a year later came its nomination, then selection, for the National Book Award for fiction. Much more was written. Yet I had not read it.

Now I have, and enjoyed it immensely. It is a book of driving narrative energy and textural deftness. Those qualities are rare -- but, to my mind, necessary to seriously accomplished writing. McDermott has mastered the craft of writing -- and the art of the novel. Craft alone doesn't always make art.

What does?

We could argue. I would contend that truth has a lot to do with it. Art involves, somehow, the pursuit of truth, major truth, elusive truth. That art is an act of courage that challenges, defies, usually abrades, what might be called minor truth, conventional certitude. "Charming Billy" is artful.

What's more, I like it. An element of that has to do with things Irish, which are of core importance to "Charming Billy." I have spent important parts of my life in Ireland. I am deeply Irish -- while entirely American.

Much writing, fine and otherwise, comes out of Ireland and diaspora Irishness. Another such book of recent note is "Angela's Ashes," which I detested. To be sure, my view is hardly unanimous: Frank McCourt's bestseller won a Pulitzer prize.

Having spent much time in Ireland, I applauded and thoroughly enjoyed the raucous satire of that book in Kevin Myers' Irish Times serial titled "Cyril's Cinders."

It begins: "What do I remember about my childhood? The same, I guess, as any Irish adult remembers about that time in their lives. Alcoholism, of course. My mother was an alcoholic, and I know why she was ... to hide the pain of Irishness, the pain of life, the pain of existence on an island where every mother is an Irish mother. ... I remember my father's cruelty. He was cruel because he was married to an alcoholic, who was alcoholic because she was married to him ... my cruel, cruel father, a heartless man, like all Irish fathers, and made that way, I think, by the cruelty of the Christian Brothers, who were that way because of their drunken mothers and their cruel and abusive fathers."

It goes on, entirely gloriously. And, judging from almost every Irish literary friend I have (and almost nobody I've known in Ireland isn't somehow literary), that very serious critical burlesque was taken far more deeply to heart than the bathos-wallowing, whining self-indulgence of "Angela's Ashes."

I may have avoided McDermott's book a year or so ago because I feared it might be of that appalling genre. It is not. In fact, it is not even close.

"Charming Billy" is a book about love, a sort of love, or sorts of love, perhaps. It also is a book in which the central human truth, the transaction from which all other events in some manner dangle, is a lie. Billy falls in love, on Long Island, with Eva, a visitor from Ireland. She goes home, promising to return to marry Billy. Billy's cousin and best friend, learning she has married someone else, tells Billy she has died. Billy lives 30 years believing that, cherishing Eva's ghost.

The consequence is to make the book an exploration of the role and function of truth.

The major matriarch in the story, having rejected religious faith all her grown life, makes a deathbed decision to leave almost her entire considerable fortune not to her two generations of progeny, but to the Roman Catholic church. Her reasoning is understood, and applauded -- because it is taken as her getting "a piece of the action in Pascal's wager."

Pascal's wager, lest one forget, is the argument, put forth in the middle of the 17th century by the mathematician Blaise Pascal, that since there is no concrete scientific evidence of either the existence or the nonexistence of God, then the only rational position -- the only smart bet -- must be to believe.

Pascal's reasoning: If God exists, the reward of faith is an eternity in heaven, and if there is no God there is no punishment for belief; if there is a God, to reject Him is to volunteer for hellfire, but if there is not one, there is no payoff for doubt.

Mentioned only once in "Charming Billy," in passing and without elaboration, Pascal's wager is a lens that gives a grim, wry clarity to the tale's every major circumstance. It is a book built on, and brimming over with, faith. That faith is not celebratory. There is nothing ecstatic in it, unless you take a very ascetic interpretation of ecstasy.

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