Billy Lynch is dead. As family and friends gather at the funeral lunch, the sad saga of Billy’s life unfolds. A sweet talker, a dreamer, a handsome man disappointed by so much, Billy had drunk himself to death. His plain-faced widow Maeve presides over the table but it’s not long before the mourners begin to whisper about Eva, Billy’s first love, his true love. Did Billy die of a disease or a broken heart? Would his life have been different had he been told the truth about the woman he loved? Or was he doomed by fate or by his own stubborn pride and relentless embrace of grief for what was lost?
Billy’s ugly demise touched many of the men and women in the tight-knit, working-class, post World War II, Irish-immigrant community. Only one, however, his cousin Dennis, knows the secret, the lie about Eva, that shaped the dead man’s existence.
As the principal characters come into focus, their harsh struggles are slowly revealed. But Billy – despite being the center of their attention and the stories recalled – remains half in shadow. Ultimately we realize that Billy’s life is a mystery never to be fully comprehended but to be remembered for all the good days, all the best intentions, and all the charm he lavished on others.
In clear prose that reverberates with a hint of the lilting Irish brogue, Alice McDermott invites us to the unhappy meal and later to the crowded rooms where tumblers of whiskey are drunk and down the avenue of memories where humanity’s better angels try to sort out the messy business that is human existence, allowing us to witness both trust and deceit, both triumph and failure and the never-ending struggle that is life.
Charming Billy is a National Book Award winner.