Blasts from the Past: Charming Billy by Alice McDermott (1998)

Charming Billy This is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy in as many hands as I could.

I was delighted to see piles of Alice McDermott’s Someone stacked up on tables at the front of Waterstones’ shops a couple of years ago. I’ve long been a fan of her elegantly poetic writing but she seemed to be overlooked here in the UK. Someone is the story of an unremarkable life deftly unfolded in McDermott’s characteristic empathetic understated style. I loved it but Charming Billy remains my favourite. It’s the sad story of Billy Lynch who lost the great love of his life and never recovered.

When Billy’s family and friends adjourn to a bar in the Bronx after his funeral it’s a time for affectionate reminiscing. Billy was someone who everyone loved – a romantic and poetic figure who left an impression on all who met him. But Billy’s death was far from romantic. He died an alcoholic, passed out on the street like a tramp. His life had been marked by heartbreak and many who knew him were convinced that he drank to ease the pain of the loss of his sweetheart many years ago. His devoted cousin, Dennis, came to his aid at any time of the day or night. But it is only after Billy’s funeral that Dennis tells his daughter the truth behind the legend of Billy’s sweetheart and the lie that was at the heart of his friendship with Billy.

For me, McDermott belongs to a small, select band of authors who write slim, elegant novels, each word carefully chosen and none wasted. Much is left unsaid, much for readers to infer, but that’s part of their joy. Her descriptions are wonderfully evocative. Who could fail to identify with Aunt Peg from McDermott’s fifth novel, Child of My Heart, who was ‘only, it seemed, a good night’s sleep away from being pretty.’ McDermott has said ‘I wouldn’t want to spend the energy just telling a story. I’ve got to hear the rhythm of the sentences; I want the music of the prose’, a music which sings out loud and clear in the wonderfully wistful elegiac tone of Charming Billy.

And what about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?

12 thoughts on “Blasts from the Past: Charming Billy by Alice McDermott (1998)”

  1. I’ve not read any Alice McDermott but she sounds like a writer I’d really enjoy. I’m a big fan of precise, understated writing, such as Yoko Ogawa. I will seek out some of McDermott’s novels – thanks for alerting me to her!

    1. You’re welcome! I love that spare, elegance. Funny you should mention Ogawa – I ordered a copy of The Diving Pool yesterday!

  2. I love Charming Billy, too, it’s heartbreaking. I haven’t read all of her novels but I adore Child of My Heart, a book I wouldn’t mind re-reading again and again. Thanks for this great post, I do love blasts from the past.

    1. Susan Osborne

      Delighted to hear from a fellow McDermott fan! Heartbreaking, indeed. I’m not sure how easily available this one is in the UK these days but I do hope Someone lifted her profile here. She deserves a much bigger audience.

    1. Susan Osborne

      It has to be said that all of her novels tend towards the melancholy. It seems to go with that Irish/Irish-American territory. I hope you like her writing if you do read it, Belinda.

  3. I’ve never heard of Alice McDermott! I do love an elegant prose style that leaves lots of room for the reader to come to their own conclusions though. I’ll have to look her up.

  4. I have a copy of Someone after several people (yourself included) gave the impression it was the sort of book I’d enjoy (and there’s a New York setting, of course). Your review just makes me think she’s probably the sort of writer that I’ll want to read everything she’s written. I had no idea she’d written so many books. Thanks for the post, I love these delves into the back catalogue.

    1. Susan Osborne

      Given how well versed you are in women’s writing, Naomi, I think your comment says it all about the level of recognition McDermott’s had here in the UK. I have hopes that Someone may have gone some way to correct that. Lots more of these posts to come!

      1. The joy of living in a two-university city is the pickings in the charity bookshops. I’ve just got my hands on copies of Child of My Heart, A Bigamist’s Daughter and At Weddings and Wakes as well as Geraldine Brooks’ People of the Book. A very good Saturday afternoon shop!

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