Resonant with the voices of its voluble, bereaved characters and fueled by the twin engines of nostalgia and lost love, Alice McDermott's National Book Award-winning Charming Billy is the story of the life and tragic death of the much-loved Billy Lynch. At the heart of McDermott's novel is the revelation that the torch Billy carried for his long-dead love is predicated upon a lie: Eva, the Irish girl Billy loved in his youth and long believed dead, is actually alive, married, and living in Ireland. (Unable to tell Billy that Eva had left him for another man, his cousin Dennis instead invented the face-saving story of her untimely death.)
Thus the central debate of the novel is set in motion: Was it the knowledge of Eva's betrayal or the discovery of Dennis's 30-year-old lie that killed Billy? Or was his death simply due to a genetic weakness for alcohol? Whatever the reason, observes Dennis's daughter (the narrator of the novel), of one thing there is no doubt: Billy had "ripped apart, plowed through, as alcoholics tend to do, the great deep, tightly woven fabric of affection that was some part of the emotional life, the life of love, of everyone in the room." Fierce, witty, and haunting, Alice McDermott's poignant evocation of postwar Irish American immigrant life is a masterpiece about the unbreakable bonds of memory and desire.
McDermott's storytelling skill is her greatest asset. In Charming Billy she strings together anecdotes using that most fragile and fickle of threads....Although McDermott's writing is eloquent and her characters are well-drawn, the structure of the novel presents problems for the casual reader. It's much like looking through a photograph album of people you don't know, of places you've never visited, and of events that happened long ago: The photos are a little fuzzy....This lack of in-the-moment affect is Charming Billy's primary defect, and even McDermott's beautiful writing can't overcome it.