Book Reviews, Hatchet Jobs
Comments 5

Telling a lie can make a person alcoholic – Charming Billy by Alice McDermott

Charming Billy by Alice McDermott

It is hard to appreciate a book that you have set yourself not to like. This is what happened with this novel. Whenever my friend and I go book hoarding, he would always point to a stray copy of this and tell me that this could be the book of my life. It exasperates me, not because I have preconceived notions of the novel but because I do not like the title.

Sounds callow, but the two words, set together, grate on my nerves. A common name and a common adjective. Really, one could think of something better, right? And really, I would have appreciated it more if it were just Billy, or Charming, but not Charming Billy.

And so I steeled my guts to read this. I tried my best not to think of the annoying title. I imagined that it were Alcoholic Billy or Billy the Drunkard. It sort of worked, but that first chapter disappointed me. I was reading about cut-out characters who weren’t sure or convinced of what they were saying, stuff like, Billy was like this, right? Didn’t he do this, and do that, I think he did. Wasn’t he at this place at that time? Yes I think he was. Is that right?

Shut up everyone! It would have been worth all that talk if the townspeople were talking about a great and noble man, but they were just wasting their time at the funeral of a pathetic alcoholic named Billy.

Billy drunk, in those days, was charming and sentimental. He spoke quietly, one hand in his pocket and the other around his glass, his glass more often than not pressed to his heart. There was tremendous affection in Billy’s eyes, or at least they held a tremendous offer of affection, a tremendous willingness to find whomever he was talking to bright and witty and better than most. Dennis came to believe in those days that you could measure a person’s vanity simply by watching how long it took him to catch on to the fact that Billy hadn’t recognized his inherent and long-underappreciated charm, he’d drawn it out with his own great expectations or simply imagined it, whole cloth.

I didn’t find Billy the least charming. Unless charming is synonymous to being overwhelmingly pathetic, yes, he is charming. And charming is something lovely, something that makes one attractive for reasons beyond logic, so I think that charming is not the adjective one would use for Billy.

Billy is sorrowful and forever haunted by a lover he met in his youth. This lover, who flew from America to Ireland, jilted Billy as soon as he sent her airfare money. Sure, he has all the reasons to be sad and melancholy, but how long should one brood over a thwarted love affair? One year? One decade? The rest of your life? The rest of your married life?

But there’s something else. Billy was lied to about what really happened to his lover. The little lie came from no less than his best friend. And he would uncover the truth many, many years later. The way he receives the news is the only charming thing about him, but that doesn’t change my opinion on him and the whole novel.

The narrative is not bad. The author can build beautiful prose, but I think one great flaw that the novel has lies with the choice of narrator. A person who barely knows Billy and who only gets second-hand unreliable information from his father Dennis, Billy’s best friend, will not be able to make us fully understand why Billy is like that. Why not let Dennis tell the story?

Apparently, the author probably wanted Billy to be this enigmatic character that the townspeople will look at with a mixture of concern and pity. But they are not capable of fathoming the gravity of his sorrow that is drowned in alcohol. Still, they condone his excessive drinking and the weight that he thrusts on his wife. They would approve of the strength of the wife’s character. They would smile and give their sincerest condolences when Billy dies. They would reminisce.

1 star - didn't like itThey annoy me.

And when I finished the book, I told my friend that I tried my best to at least appreciate this book, but this book will never be the book of my life. I gave it many chances. I somehow wanted my friend to prove me wrong. But I couldn’t care what the heck is wrong with Billy.

And there you have it. I won’t add more details so you might at least have a reason to read this. Read it when you are in good spirits. Read it along with your favorite book. Read it when your temper is controllable. oh well, just read it if and see if you’ll agree with me or not.



  1. Now I sort of want to read it — to see if it is bad, or that bad. I think I tried to read it years ago but then didn’t. I just cant do dull, so I hope it isnt that. But I dont plan to try it again soon


Thoughts? Feelings?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s