What makes a book relevant more than twenty years after it was first published? In order to persist, books tell tales that go beyond the experiences of the main character and become relatable to broad audiences across time. “Charming Billy” by Alice McDermott does exactly this while questioning the nature of relevance through an exploration of the titular character.
Billy Lynch is an alcoholic. That’s the unchanging reality that leads him to die alone in New York City before the book begins. In the opening chapter, readers meet the community at his funeral, huddled inside a bar and grill ironically drinking the very stuff that fueled Billy’s addiction. It’s through their conversation that we learn of Billy’s goodhearted nature. Billy is willing to help out a friend in any situation and finds ways to make people feel good about life. It’s at that table we meet Billy’s cousin Dennis, who seems to have access to Billy’s life in ways the rest of the family doesn’t.
Dennis’ daughter, relating her father’s account, is the one to tell Billy’s story. It’s through her that we learn about Billy’s life, both before and after the loss of the great love in his life, Eva. It was love at first conversation for the son of Irish immigrants. But of all the dreams Billy is able to make reality, he never manages to marry Eva, because Dennis lies and tells Billy that Eva died while on a visit home to Ireland, leaving Billy distraught. This devastating lie told to protect Billy shapes and guides his life, until he finally learns the truth years later.
Despite the separation of a lie and an ocean, Billy fights to keep Eva relevant to his life. He idolizes Eva into an image of perfection. However, Eva also factors into Billy’s despair, fueling the drinking that creates a world in which she still exists to him. He keeps Eva not only in his memory, but also in his heart because she’s the embodiment of the young and carefree Billy who felt like he had the world at his fingertips. He spends his life grappling with losing that part of himself and his idyllic vision of the world. His family, too, must also attempt to reconcile the depth of Billy’s feelings for Eva and what she represented.
Present-day readers might connect Billy’s Irish “American dream” with the romance and reality underpinning the American dreams of countless immigrants and their descendants today. His pursuit of happiness changes as his dreams evolve amid life’s challenges. Still, other readers might be moved to connect the scourge of alcoholism in the novel to the destructive force of the current opioid epidemic on families and communities across America. Ultimately, what endures is McDermott’s talented creation of epic characters out of the everyday, and the harnessing of a point of view from which a community strives to connect with one another in shared memory.