|Charming Billy Captures The Irish in Prose|
|by John Goodspeed|
This fine novel by Bethesda resident Alice McDermott, won the latest National Book Award and would easily, in my opinion, win the Irish-American Book Award--if there were such a prize.
Charming Billy is a story about second- and third-generation Irish-Americans, most of whom are blood relations and live and love and laugh and drink and breed and confess and work for Consolidated Edison in the Queens part of New York City.
The men have names like Dennis and Danny and Kevin, the women Maeve and Rosemary and Bridie. They dont say faith! or begorra!, but theyre proud to be descendants of Irish immigrants, and some still speak with a brogue. Theyre patriotic and conformist and voluble and entertaining. In short, theyre as Irish-American as those old movies starring Pat OBrien and James Cagney. Youd never confuse the New Yorkers in Charming Billy with East Side Jews or Knickerbocker Protestants.
The narrator is a female baby-boomer who is a cousin-once-removed of the protagonist as well as (probably) the authors alter ego. Shes tolerant and smart--she finishes college in two and a half years--but shes subtly critical of the pride and prejudice, racism, sexism, faith and clannish behavior she observes in her elders.
Her rather long opening account of what 30 or 40 of her relatives say and do at a dinner in a Bronx restaurant following the eponymous protagonists funeral is brilliant social satire, reminiscent of, although less scathing than, James T. Farrells stories about an earlier generation of Irish-Americans in Chicago, Can All This Grandeur Perish? (1937).
Also very effective in Charming Billy: a nocturnal discussion, lubricated by whiskey, between the narrators father and a contemporary Catholic intellectual about (1) how unfair it is to suspect priests of sexual peccadilloes just because theyre supposed to be celibate, and (2) why their cousin, charming Billy, should have been allowed to drink himself to death without interference.
The novels story line turns on these developments: Billy, a World-War II combat veteran, dies of the drink (as his relatives describe alcoholism) after believing for 30 years that the love of his life he met on a Long Island beach in 1945 died a short time after she returned to her native Ireland in 1946, and then for a few more years after he discovers that she has married an Irish citizen who runs a gasoline station.
As I read it, according to the sentimental values of Billys relatives, his fatal drinking is made understandable by both the grief he suffered when he believed the love of his life was dead and the despair he suffered after he learned she had deceived him. Irish-Americans, of course, are not the only nationality that embraces sentimentality--and, of course, not all Irish-Americans embrace it. Im pretty sure, though, that Pat OBrien and James Cagney would have understood Billys drunken charm in those foine ayold Irish-American movies of yesteryear.
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This story was published on Mar. 3, 1999.