Alice McDermott

Charming Billy

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Charming Billy Summary

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Charming Billy is an adult contemporary novel by American author Alice McDermott. It tells the story of an ordinary man and his lifelong alcohol addiction after the death of his first and true love. First published in 1998 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Charming Billy received the 1998 National Book Award for Fiction, and the 1999 American Book Award. It was nominated for the 2000 Orange Prize for Fiction. The book is praised for its treatment of ordinary life and its trials, and what it means to step back and reassess your life. McDermott is a three-time Pulitzer Prize nominee.

The novel opens with the aftermath of the title character’s funeral. Billy Lynch drinks himself into an early grave, and his family and friends gather in a New York bar after his funeral to reminisce about his life and what he meant to them all.

One question they all have is what drove Billy to alcoholism, and what issues he was fighting that they didn’t know about. Some of his family believe alcoholism is a disease and nothing caused it. Others think it’s more likely the death of his first love, Eva, made him ill. Only his cousin, Dennis, knows the truth—and he plans on sharing it with everyone. This story forms the basis of the narrative, and we look back forty years, to 1945, when it all begins.

In 1945, Billy returns from the Army after WWII. He plans on getting a job in America and stays in Long Island. Billy, however, meets Eva, a girl who is over from Ireland visiting family. They begin a courtship. He makes her a promise that they’ll be together and gives her a ring.

When she returns home to Ireland, all he can think about is seeing her again. He saves money to see her and sends money back to her to visit him in the US. Dennis borrows money from his family to help Billy out. However, Eva never comes to see him.

Dennis learns the truth—she marries her childhood sweetheart back in Ireland and uses the money Billy sends her to buy a business for her new husband. To protect Billy from this truth, Dennis pretends she is dead. Billy is heartbroken, but Dennis believes this will be easier for him to accept.

Billy works in a shoe store run by his stepfather to pay off the loan. While working here, he meets his wife, Maeve, who loves him dearly and is a good wife to him. However, another cousin, Dan, believes Billy only married Maeve because he wanted to someone to look after him. He doesn’t believe it was true love for Billy. When Dennis goes to visit Dan after the wake, Dan admits this. He believes Eva was the reason for Billy’s drinking problem.

The truth is different from what they imagine. Billy takes to the drink after learning Eva is dead. However, he vows to make things right and get himself off alcohol for good. He wants to make peace with his past and move forward. Billy decides to visit Ireland and look for Eva’s grave. He goes to the town where she grew up, but he gets lost and decides to stop in at a gas station. This gas station happens to be the one Eva’s husband runs.

When Billy gets to the gas station, he sees Eva there. She is older but easy to recognise, and she looks happy. Billy doesn’t know how to react. He leaves right away and goes home to Long Island. He asks Dennis to admit the truth and he wants to know why Dennis lied. Billy, however, isn’t angry—he understands Dennis did this to protect him and had good intentions. Billy feels at peace with everything after all these years.

Dennis, however, suffers for the lie he told Billy, because he regrets ever saying it. He wonders if he is to blame for Billy’s heartbreak, and if he should simply have told him the truth. He worries Billy’s life could have been different. To feel better over the years, Dennis convinces himself Billy is an idealist and a romantic and can’t cope when he learns the world isn’t like that.

However, Dennis loses his own wife, Claire, after Billy’s death. Only then does he understand what that complete loss of faith feels like, and how Billy ended up the way he did. He doesn’t know where to turn, and Maeve is the same. She was devoted to Billy, and really struggles without him.

In his loneliness, Dennis grows closer to Maeve, and they begin a romantic relationship. We are left with a sense that, perhaps now, Maeve will also get the love she deserves and that the surviving characters can move on with their lives with Billy’s memory forever cherished.