Monday, September 11, 2006

Charming Billy by Alice McDermott

There are some novels that are so self-contained, so organically whole, that it seems not only pointless but somehow rude to talk about them, to attempt an overview or summation. As you might have guessed, I’m going to try to talk about just such a novel today. Its title is Charming Billy, and the author is Alice McDermott. I suppose if I say that it is a novel about Irish-Americans living in the Bronx, about families and religion, faith and love, I will have offered some sort of informative overview, but I will not have even begun to get at the charm and profundity of Charming Billy.

On the face of it, this is about as simple a story as one could imagine. It begins with a gathering of Irish-Americans come together to eulogize one of their own, the charming and romantic Billy. And in many ways, it not only begins there, but ends there as well. Some writers have such incredible talent and facility with language that they can, while apparently telling us about a single event, capture a lifetime, and in McDermott’s novel, not only the lifetime of one character, but of a whole family, a whole community. Like casting a stone into a still pond and watching the ripples move outward in all directions, so the single stone of this story, Billy’s death and the wake that follows, allows the author to travel backwards in time and out into the lives of many others. I will be giving away nothing that the reader is not told in the first few pages if I tell you that charming Billy is a man who has loved and lost, the loss becoming the pivot point for the rest of his life. So loyal is Billy to his lost Eva that his friends, especially his men friends, suppose that he will never find another woman again, indeed, that he will never allow himself to look. Instead, he will try to replace with alcohol what has been lost to him, and though never losing his charm, his wit, his easy smile and engaging stories, will fall slowly but inevitably into alcoholism and death. And each of the men will live vicariously through Billy an undying love, an unshakable faith, a pure romance.

McDermott gets to be a kind of fly on the wall, listening to the men who love Billy and who love Billy’s love, talk about what might have been, about the great, profound lost love. She accomplishes this by making her narrator a kind of incidental figure in the grouping, the young daughter of Dennis, who is Billy’s cousin and best friend. The daughter is home briefly from college to attend Billy’s funeral. The men can (and do) pretty much ignore her; they have known her since she was a child, indeed still view her as a child, insider by birth and blood, but outsider both because she is merely a woman and because she did not know Eva, did not know Billy when he was still whole and vibrant. She can eavesdrop on their conversations, their versions of Billy’s story, and they will only barely notice that she is there.

While the men take center stage in this novel, and while it is ostensibly about them—their lives, their love of Billy, their connections to one another and to alcohol, my view is that McDermott is more interested in the lives of the women who shadow these great drinkers and talkers. The men dream and drink and talk, the women live and provide, give birth and carry on. Even as Billy and Dennis, just home from World War II, begin to woo two sisters, Eva and Mary, and thus launch the love story that is apparently at the center of this novel, Dennis’ mother has remarried a moderately wealthy German shoe salesman, moved into his house, and set up an ironing board that will never be taken down again.

There was a laundry list of reasons why she had married again and not one of them had anything to do with love, but with enough space (when you came right down to it), enough baseboard and yard and empty room, enough heat in the winter and sufficient windows to open for a cross breeze in summer, love was an easy thing to do without.
Another shadow figure in the novel is Maeve, the woman whom Billy eventually meets and marries (much to the chagrin of all of his men friends who remain loyal to the lost Eva). Maeve is plain and colorless, nothing like the beautiful lost Eva; she is a woman who presided over the death of her mother, and then became the cook and housecleaner and caretaker for her sick, alcoholic father. Billy’s friends are less than surprised when she becomes the caretaker for Billy as well; they see it as magnanimous on his part that he rescues plain Maeve from spinsterhood and allows her to pour him into bed at night, sick-drunk from alcohol, sometimes having to call Dennis to come help her literally carry him upstairs to bed. Poor Billy, they think, his alcoholism not a disease, but a palliative for his great, lost love. Does Maeve know, they wonder, about the Irish woman, the lovely Eva? Does she understand why she can never really replace Eva in Billy’s heart?

Billy is a charming figure, handsome and witty; he always has a story to tell. He works two jobs to save up the money that he needs to bring Eva back from Ireland, determined to bring her and her sisters too if she cannot leave them behind. Indeed, he will bring over the whole family if that is what is required. So great is his love. No sacrifice is too great for such a love.

But even as he sweats and slaves, working for Con Ed in the day, working in a shoe-store some nights and every weekend, all in the name of love, his aunt, Dennis’ mother, grieves for both her own son and for Billy. Not because they lose their loves, but because they sacrifice their lives simply to survive.
Although at that time in her life she had held only two jobs herself—one in a bakery in Brooklyn, one in the mailroom of the gas company—she had a considered opinion about what the workaday world could do to you, and it wasn’t a very high opinion, either, despite her Protestant blood.

In part, she objected to the monotony of nine-to-five, the tedium, the hours and days you ended up wishing away, swinging from one Saturday morning to another like a monkey at the zoo. In part, it was the anonymity: Forget what dreams you’d dreamt the night before, forget the adoring eye that beheld you over breakfast, or even the grief that had been wringing out your soul all night long, because the way she saw it, once you boarded the subway or the bus or joined the crawling stream of automobiles or found your space in the revolving door, the elevator, behind the desk or the counter or the machine, you became what you really were—you became, when you got right down to it, what you really were: one of the so many million, just one more.
So, as she watches her boy Dennis, her nephew Billy, go off to work for Con Ed, she grieves for what they might have been, what they might have done had they been able to define themselves through their work rather than sacrificing their lives to work. Let the men drink and lament the loss of the Great Love, the incomparable (because unreachable) Eva; she will grieve instead for what they might have done, what they might have been, what they might have created.

At least as I read it, all the men in the story want to know about Eva, what really happened, why she never came. They want to wonder what might have been had the great romance flowered. And I would not want to suggest that McDermott is an unsympathetic storyteller of their stories, their loves and lives and losses. Still, both the narrator and the author are women who lived with and loved these men, and it is the story of the women, the shadows, that most interested me, and I suspect it is the one that McDermott most wanted to tell. It is a quiet little book, told by a storyteller so gifted that it is easy to miss the social and political significance and simply flow with the story. It is also a book that is easy to put down even after you have begun to read it; I hope you will pick it up again. It deserves to be cradled and savored; let it sink in. Notice the shadows as well as the light.

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