When Alice McDermott's Charming Billy was selected for the National Book
Award in fiction last year over, most notably, Tom Wolfe's noisy epic A Man in Full, McDermott received the kind of press that the University of Connecticut Huskies are getting after their triumph over the Duke Blue Devils in the Final Four: the heretofore unacknowledged David slaying the overblown Goliath. Charming Billy is quiet, lyrical, crafted so that small epiphanies emerge within the narrative tapestry. A Man in Full is loud, orchestral, constructed on a series of extended scenes that pull the reader along with the force of a riptide. A modest woman's novel. A rude man's novel.
The press' snide comments about Wolfe's supposed undoing have died down over the months since McDermott received the NBA, but the manufactured controversy has made her reflect on the shallow way in which literature is considered by the mass media. During a recent stop in St. Louis for a tour promoting the paperback edition of Charming Billy, McDermott emphasizes, "I assure you that I didn't think about Tom Wolfe once during the three years it took me to write my book, and I'm positive that he didn't think about me in the 13 years it took to write his."
She's pleased to find that, at readings now, she's being asked not about the vanquishing of Tom Wolfe but instead about Charming Billy. One group of readers has been especially interested. "I've met a lot of older men who come to readings -- a sort of whole new set of readers for me, that World War II generation -- they almost always ask, 'How did you know so much about a generation you're not a part of?' And not so much the details of that history but the emotions of their generation."
Charming Billy is the story of sad, lovable Billy Lynch, who drinks himself to death. The novel begins at Billy's wake with stories told about him. As his tireless, grieving widow sits barely out of earshot, clusters of family and friends discuss another woman, the Irish beauty Billy fell in love with one magical summer on Long Island after the war, and how, after she'd returned home, he saved and sent money for her to come back to America and marry. But like a tale told in an Irish ballad, this was not to be; Billy learned from his best friend, Dennis, that the girl had died.
It's a story told to explain the tragedy of a life, how one so sweet and loved and capable could lose himself to drink.
It's also a lie, and through the revelation of that lie McDermott enters into the sensibility of a generation of Irish-Americans who would make up such a lie and live it as truth. McDermott explores the emotional need for the lie and for the stories created to make sense of Billy's life.
McDermott is herself a baby boomer, daughter of the generation she writes about in Charming Billy. "All my life I have been in the company of men of that generation in one way or the other: father, uncles, fathers of friends, professors, teachers, priests -- that's the male generation that preceded mine. I realized I could fill volumes with World War II anecdotes that I've only overheard, or heard related through my friends talking about their parents."
As a novelist, the knowledge she has of that generation is of less importance than what she doesn't know: the shadows and silences that have provided the spark for the fiction. "There's a great benefit in having that shadow, so you enter the fiction and discover things through the fiction rather than knowing it so perfectly and then bringing it to the fiction. I wasn't aware of how much I knew and understood that generation until I was made to think about how I did know and understand that generation. It's that shadow that makes it intriguing for fiction. I couldn't write about things that I've actually lived. I couldn't write honestly about anything I've actually experienced."
McDermott agrees with a dictum of the novelist John Irving's: "Just because it happened to you is the worst reason to write about it."
"That's part of my dissatisfaction with memoir," she concurs. "It bores me. So what, it happened to you. Fiction does other things with experience. But at least for a certain kind of fiction -- mine included, where language is primary -- if you're writing through your first language, you've acquired that language through experience, not through research. So even the means, the tools, the use of language is based on your experience of life."
This may explain why on reading Charming Billy there is often a soft Irish lilt present in the speech, remnants of McDermott's first language of experience. Through the voice of the narrator, McDermott says, she is trying to create the effect of a story told. "One thing I did want in the book was the sense of a story told in a conversational, storytelling tone; a sense of a retold story, twice told, three times told. I wanted there to be the kinds of asides that language has, occasional bits of self-awareness."
The novel "began with Billy," McDermott says. After completing her previous novel, At Weddings and Wakes, which also explores the generation of Irish-Americans who lived through World War II, McDermott began to think of a "prominent stereotype in the Irish-American community" that did not appear in At Weddings and Wakes: the charming, romantic drunk.
"It just intrigued me to write a novel with that kind of character at its center and not make the novel disprove the stereotype, which seems to be the obvious thing. If you're writing about a stereotypical character, then what you need to do is prove the stereotype is wrong, that deep inside he's a misanthrope or has dark, evil sides. The challenge was, what if he really is, what if he is this sentimental slob right to his very soul?
"How do you write that and still make him an individual? I realized you can only do that through the people around him. Also, my impulse as the writer to make him an individual is even stronger in the people around him who will not accept his life as a stereotype. This is the guy they know and they love. This is a profoundly unique individual to them, even though they admit and can see on paper it's a pathetic life and a stereotypical life. Individualizing him individualizes them."
Because the act of making Billy's life into a meaningful story is so important to the characters, the conflicts that arise in the novel are often about who is telling the story properly. How is Billy's memory best preserved? How may his life be redeemed through how it is told?
With these questions, McDermott pursues the larger issues of the book. Although modest in scale, Charming Billy is by no means modest in scope. The lie that Billy is told is the means through which McDermott explores questions of what may govern a life and the faith it takes to transcend the doubt within any life.
McDermott describes the reasoning behind the lie: "Fate or God didn't do such a good job here, but if you step in and tell it a certain way, it becomes something else. How much better his story would be if this had happened rather than that. In many ways that's the basic impulse of any storyteller: what really happened vs. the story that's told about it. What really happened isn't good enough for a story."
Billy's best friend, Dennis, is the one who concocts this lie and is really the protagonist of McDermott's novel, for with the telling of the lie he creates a fiction he is responsible for maintaining. "It turns on him, too," says McDermott, "because he messed with Billy's faith -- in Billy's faith in the world and Billy's faith in him and in his religious faith. That's when it turns back on Dennis, because when he needs to call on that religious faith he sees his own deception and it shakes him in a way it would have never been shaken, given his background and his upbringing."
For McDermott, it is this doubt that is the essence of faith. "That's where you have the enlightened faith rather than the blind, inherited faith."
The theology that aligns story, memory and faith in Charming Billy is distinctly Irish-Catholic in nature. McDermott acknowledges that in the Irish tradition there is also "too much faith. There is that sense of depressiveness of memory. To be too loyal to a past, or the past of generations before you, can be stifling."
The oppressiveness of memory and faith is not unique to the Irish tradition, as the ongoing catastrophe in the Balkans gives horrifying example, but McDermott admits there is no expression in the Irish idiom comparable to "Forget about it."
"You have 'Don't mention it,'" she laughs, "but you don't have 'Forget about it.'"
Even as McDermott's novel revolves around issues of faith in an Irish-American Catholic community, she cannot be narrowly defined as a Catholic writer. Catholicism is part of the emotional and philosophical landscape of her work, but it is not at the overwrought core, as it sometimes is in the work of such contemporaries as Mary Gordon and the late Andre Dubus.
"I see Catholicism as not such a big deal as those writers do," she says. "You accept it and you go on. I see it more as part of a life but not such a defining part -- certainly a way of thinking, a way of viewing the world.
"It may be generational," she adds, having grown up mostly in the post-Vatican II church. "I don't have as much trouble with it. It's not new to me that it's a flawed institution, and it doesn't bother me that it's a flawed institution. It's part and parcel rather than something that has to be confronted and gazed at steady on. Maybe I've just never taken it that seriously."
McDermott recites a litany of questions that are decidedly not central themes to her work: "As a Catholic, how do I live? How do I reconcile my feminism? How do I reconcile my feelings of inadequacy?
"I just don't see it as this big lump in the center of a life that I either have to kick aside or battle through. Maybe it's more cultural than religious for me. I lose patience sometimes because it becomes a subject in the fiction, and that troubles me sometimes. It feels thematic sometimes, the author saying, 'Take that, Mother Church,' and not letting the characters live it.
"Most of the Catholics I know arefallen-away Catholics. Most practicing Catholics I know have complex lives. I have 12 years of Catholic training and grew up in an Irish-Catholic household. I didn't miss Mass on Sunday, but we were also raised with a sense of perspective that I find more common in Catholics. Of course the church isn't perfect. You don't go to bed for a month because the priest disappointed you. Get real!
"But as a way of viewing the world, as a way of looking at life, the primacy of last things, the idea of faith -- all those things are very important to me and very important to my fiction. But, again, it could be generational. I was lucky enough to come along and young enough when Vatican II changes came and I wasn't so indoctrinated in the other stuff. I didn't feel betrayed by them or shaken in faith. It just made sense.