‘Charming Billy’ Captures The Irish in Prose

by John Goodspeed

by Alice McDermott
New York: Farrar, Straus and
Giroux. 280 pages. $22.
ISBN 0-374-12080-3

     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 don’t say “faith!” or “begorra!,” but they’re proud to be descendants of Irish immigrants, and some still speak with a brogue. They’re patriotic and conformist and voluble and entertaining. In short, they’re as Irish-American as those old movies starring Pat O’Brien and James Cagney. You’d 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 author’s alter ego. She’s tolerant and smart--she finishes college in two and a half years--but she’s 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 protagonist’s funeral is brilliant social satire, reminiscent of, although less scathing than, James T. Farrell’s 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 narrator’s father and a contemporary Catholic intellectual about (1) how unfair it is to suspect priests of sexual peccadilloes just because they’re supposed to be celibate, and (2) why their cousin, “charming Billy,” should have been allowed to drink himself to death without interference.
     The novel’s 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 Billy’s 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. I’m pretty sure, though, that Pat O’Brien and James Cagney would have “understood” Billy’s drunken charm in those foine ayold Irish-American movies of yesteryear.

      John Goodspeed, formerly an Evening Sun writer, now lives on the Eastern Shore.

Copyright © 2003 The Baltimore Chronicle and The Sentinel. All rights reserved. We invite your comments, criticisms and suggestions.

Republication or redistribution of Baltimore Chronicle and Sentinel content is expressly prohibited without their prior written consent.

This story was published on Mar. 3, 1999.