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?