Charming Billy is not an easy book to read for several reasons, not the least being the fact that its central character, Billy Lynch, a hopeless alcoholic, is already dead by the opening scene of the book. And despite the book’s title, Billy Lynch is only charming in the usual manner of alcoholics who stay drunk as many hours a day as they can get away with it. Sadly, as part of the close knit Irish community in which he worked and lived, Billy fit right in and no one was able to save him from himself.
But subject matter aside, this was also a difficult book to read because of the way that Alice McDermott uses flashback and vague narration in order to reconstruct and explain the life of the recently deceased Billy Lynch. She doesn’t offer the reader much help in piecing together all the bits and hints that she discloses over the course of the book. So many names are thrown out by McDermott, and her narrator is so vague at times about who the new characters are and how they relate to the story, that it is sometimes a struggle just to keep the plot straight.
And it is a complex plot that illustrates some of the basic laws of human nature, especially the ones regarding alcoholism and those who have to deal with it. Billy’s friends and family soon learned just how little they could do to help him defeat the disease that was killing him. Banning him from their homes didn’t work. Preaching to him didn’t work. Drinking with him certainly didn’t work. Anyone who has ever watched a loved one destroy himself by his addictions will immediately recognize the hopeless path that Billy and his family found themselves upon. But the saddest part of Billy’s story is the way that his favorite cousin’s attempt to spare him some emotional pain by lying to him has exactly the opposite effect on him. In fact, this is a case of “no good deed going unpunished” that negatively dictates the course of most of Billy’s adult life.
Charming Billy was a 1998 National Book Award winner and it is another of those award winners that make me question the whole process involved with picking winners in any kind of literary contest. This is a good book but I find it hard to believe that it was one of the absolute best efforts of that year. It has a touching story to tell but unfortunately that story gets clouded and muddled at times because of the structure within which McDermott frames it.
Rated at: 3.0