Raising Eire

In Charming Billy, novelist Alice McDermott exposes the faith and lies that bind an Irish-American community

When Alice McDermott's Charming Billy was selected for the National Book
Award in fiction last year over, most notably, Tom Wolfe's noisy epic A Man in Full, McDermott received the kind of press that the University of Connecticut Huskies are getting after their triumph over the Duke Blue Devils in the Final Four: the heretofore unacknowledged David slaying the overblown Goliath. Charming Billy is quiet, lyrical, crafted so that small epiphanies emerge within the narrative tapestry. A Man in Full is loud, orchestral, constructed on a series of extended scenes that pull the reader along with the force of a riptide. A modest woman's novel. A rude man's novel.

The press' snide comments about Wolfe's supposed undoing have died down over the months since McDermott received the NBA, but the manufactured controversy has made her reflect on the shallow way in which literature is considered by the mass media. During a recent stop in St. Louis for a tour promoting the paperback edition of Charming Billy, McDermott emphasizes, "I assure you that I didn't think about Tom Wolfe once during the three years it took me to write my book, and I'm positive that he didn't think about me in the 13 years it took to write his."

She's pleased to find that, at readings now, she's being asked not about the vanquishing of Tom Wolfe but instead about Charming Billy. One group of readers has been especially interested. "I've met a lot of older men who come to readings -- a sort of whole new set of readers for me, that World War II generation -- they almost always ask, 'How did you know so much about a generation you're not a part of?' And not so much the details of that history but the emotions of their generation."

Charming Billy is the story of sad, lovable Billy Lynch, who drinks himself to death. The novel begins at Billy's wake with stories told about him. As his tireless, grieving widow sits barely out of earshot, clusters of family and friends discuss another woman, the Irish beauty Billy fell in love with one magical summer on Long Island after the war, and how, after she'd returned home, he saved and sent money for her to come back to America and marry. But like a tale told in an Irish ballad, this was not to be; Billy learned from his best friend, Dennis, that the girl had died.

It's a story told to explain the tragedy of a life, how one so sweet and loved and capable could lose himself to drink.

It's also a lie, and through the revelation of that lie McDermott enters into the sensibility of a generation of Irish-Americans who would make up such a lie and live it as truth. McDermott explores the emotional need for the lie and for the stories created to make sense of Billy's life.

McDermott is herself a baby boomer, daughter of the generation she writes about in Charming Billy. "All my life I have been in the company of men of that generation in one way or the other: father, uncles, fathers of friends, professors, teachers, priests -- that's the male generation that preceded mine. I realized I could fill volumes with World War II anecdotes that I've only overheard, or heard related through my friends talking about their parents."

As a novelist, the knowledge she has of that generation is of less importance than what she doesn't know: the shadows and silences that have provided the spark for the fiction. "There's a great benefit in having that shadow, so you enter the fiction and discover things through the fiction rather than knowing it so perfectly and then bringing it to the fiction. I wasn't aware of how much I knew and understood that generation until I was made to think about how I did know and understand that generation. It's that shadow that makes it intriguing for fiction. I couldn't write about things that I've actually lived. I couldn't write honestly about anything I've actually experienced."

McDermott agrees with a dictum of the novelist John Irving's: "Just because it happened to you is the worst reason to write about it."

"That's part of my dissatisfaction with memoir," she concurs. "It bores me. So what, it happened to you. Fiction does other things with experience. But at least for a certain kind of fiction -- mine included, where language is primary -- if you're writing through your first language, you've acquired that language through experience, not through research. So even the means, the tools, the use of language is based on your experience of life."

This may explain why on reading Charming Billy there is often a soft Irish lilt present in the speech, remnants of McDermott's first language of experience. Through the voice of the narrator, McDermott says, she is trying to create the effect of a story told. "One thing I did want in the book was the sense of a story told in a conversational, storytelling tone; a sense of a retold story, twice told, three times told. I wanted there to be the kinds of asides that language has, occasional bits of self-awareness."

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