National Book Award charmed by bleak tale

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

CHARMING BILLY

By Alice McDermott

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Recommended: Bestselling books the week of 9/19/13, according to IndieBound*

280 pp., $22

No one was prepared for "Charming Billing" to win the National Book Award. Not even the woman who wrote it.

When the judge called Alice McDermott to the stage at last week's ceremony in New York, the applause faded awkwardly as she wended her way through the tables of America's most famous authors and publishers. "I'm sorry it took me so long to get up here," she said. "I was writing my acceptance speech."

Who can blame her for procrastinating? One of her competitors, Tom Wolfe's "A Man in Full," was already a publishing legend. It had been nominated even before the book was released. The publisher expects to sell 250,000 copies in Atlanta alone.

Comparisons may be odorous, but the scent here is irresistible. Wolfe's big alpha-male novel captures the sweep of a nation's racial and economic tensions; McDermott studies the sweep of regret across a new widow's eyes. One is the Grand Canyon, the other a terrarium.

"Charming Billy" takes place in the Bronx, around the funeral for Billy Lynch, an affable Irishman who spent 30 years drowning his pain in alcohol. McDermott proves herself a master of the downward glance, the turned lip, the dropped shoulders. Who can forget, the mourners repeatedly ask each other, the persistence of Billy's grief?

It was just after World War II, when Billy and his cousin Dennis spotted Eva on the beach. She had come from Ireland to help her sister take care of the children of a wealthy couple in New York. When one of the babies began to cry, Billy scooped up and quieted the child - the perfect way to impress a harried nanny.

"When did he fall in love with [Eva]?" the narrator asks, struggling to understand the enormity and tragedy of Billy's affection. "Probably it was the day before, before she had even come clearly into his view. But that afternoon he fell in love with the rest of his life, and that was better still. The days ahead when he would come to the beach here and the child he held, the children who ran to them, wet and trembling, would be theirs."

Before that beautiful promise can be fulfilled, however, Eva insists on returning home to say goodbye to her Irish family. Billy writes to her daily, sends her and her relatives new shoes, and even borrows money to bring them all to America. But before she can return, Eva dies, and the future he had outlined sears his mind and drives him to cool his grief with alcohol.

"Here's the saddest part," the narrator's father says at the stunning end of the first chapter. "Here's the most pathetic part of all. Eva never died. It was a lie. Just between the two of us, Eva lived."

So begins the real tragedy of Billy's life and this unsettling novel. The cousin who concocted Eva's death must consider whether he was trying to protect Billy or merely sustain his own fantasies of romance. The plain, barren woman Billy eventually married must consider whether she needed her husband's alcoholism in order to feel needed, martyred, and noble.

Looking at these sad people, the book's young narrator struggles to divine the true substance of an unrealized dream or a lifetime of grief based on a false report. Her conclusions are thoroughly post-modern. Ultimately, she suggests, we have to acknowledge the insubstantiality of all hope and love, but persist in hoping and loving anyhow, just to keep living.

No matter how beautifully or even charmingly phrased, that cynical judgment doesn't shed much needed light.

* Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail to charlesr@csps.com

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