For The Someday Book

Book Review: Charming Billy

Posted on: August 17, 2011

Charming Billy, by Alice McDermott, Delta Trade Paperbacks, 1998, 243 pp.

Charming Billy was not the light, quick vacation read I was looking for when I checked it out from the library. Instead, it was an intense, pain-stakingly constructed look inside the life of an alcoholic, told from the perspective of his closest friends. It was a work of art, deep and poignant.

The story begins at Billy’s funeral luncheon, with all his friends and family gathered around for a formal meal at a restaurant. They all begin to talk about his life. The novel unpacks, ever so slowly, what happened to Billy—how he went from a jovial young man who was the life of the party to an alcoholic who could end up nearly dying in a ditch. The narrator is the daughter of Billy’s best friend Dennis. Dennis has witnessed Billy’s entire life, and he was especially close during the critical turning points of tragedy, betrayal and misfortune. We rarely hear the tales in Dennis’ own voice, but eventually all comes into the light. The story is revealed like scraping a coat of paint from a window pane—with each stroke, you can see just a tiny bit more, until everything becomes clear.

The title is evocative and accurate. Billy is indeed a charming guy, even through his addiction. The novel itself seems to “charm” him, summoning his character and history out like a venomous snake in a basket. It was an intense read. I would recommend it to anyone seeking insight into the lives of alcoholics, their families and friends. McDermott captures the tension between wanting to aid someone in the grips of addiction as illness, and the desire to punish them for their bad decisions in hopes it will inspire better ones. She details the struggles of family and friends who love Billy even as they watch him self-destruct, and the sense of helplessness and weariness they share.

In one scene, the priest visits the home of Billy and hears his wife Maeve share her sense of hopelessness that all her love did not make any difference. The priest responds:

We could all tell ourselves tonight that we didn’t do enough, Maeve. I had the thought myself when Dennis called me the other day and told me Billy was gone, and how they found him. I thought, Dear Lord, what could I have done? We could all of us say today that if we loved him it was a poor sort of love, or else his life wouldn’t have ended as it did. But you know, if I said it to you, Maeve, if I said that I failed him, … or if any one of Billy’s friends said it, you’d be the first to tell us it wasn’t true. And you’d mean it. And you’d be right. Billy succumbed to an illness we couldn’t cure in time. It wasn’t a failure of our affections, it was a triumph of the disease. That’s the very thing you would tell any one of us and it’s the thing you have to believe yourself. Of course, it mattered. Everything you felt, everything you did for Billy mattered, regardless of how it turned out.

It’s good to hear such positive words from a priest, even a fictional one.

That’s how the whole novel goes. Just hauntingly simply and real. Billy may have been charming, but alcoholism never is.

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About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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