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Charming Billy ()

National Book Award Winners (1998)

    Oh!, Where have you been, Billy boy, Billy boy,
    Oh, where have you been, charming Billy?
    I have been to seek a wife, she's the joy of my young life,
    She's a young thing and cannot leave her mother.
        -Billy Boy

Alice McDermott pulled off a major upset when she beat out Tom Wolfe for the National Book Award this year.  I know it sent me scurrying for her books to figure out what I was missing; having now read At Weddings and Wakes (1992) & Charming Billy, I'd have to say that Ms McDermott is a gifted writer whose "Irish-American angst" is not for me.   I admire her ability to evoke memories of the suburban 50's & 60's, but her stories are so submerged in bathos that they become somewhat grating.  After all, the stories--At Weddings and Wakes dwelt on a woman's disappointment in her marriage and her husband, Charming Billy tells the story of a supposedly charming drunkard, whose life was irreparably damaged by the purported death of a young love--are asking us to feel pity for people who, while things haven't worked out exactly as they hoped, are living lives of enormous privilege in America's Golden Age.   As I read them, I found them pinioned by two Irish American memoirs: Doris Kearns Goodwin's Wait Till Next Year (1997) and Frank McCourt's Angela Ashes.  Goodwin treats much the same people, in much the same neighborhoods, but where McDermott is morose, Goodwin is effervescent.  Goodwin clearly recognizes the extraordinary gift that she was handed, growing up during that time and even family tragedy can not dim the glow.  Meanwhile, McCourt's book shows us people who do deserve some pity, children growing up in grinding poverty, but does not ask for it.  His book is a triumphal rise from the gutter and a loving look back at what must have been an extremely difficult early life.  Turn then to the pages of Charming Billy and we have a man drinking himself to death because the woman he knew for one week one summer did not end up as his wife.  C'mon.  There is a sense in which to write such elegaic stories about the "difficult" lives of these characters is to lie.

I anxiously await the novel where McDermott lightens up and recognizes how good she and her characters have had it in suburban America in the past forty years.


Grade: (C-)


Book-related and General Links:
    -INTERVIEW: with Elizabeth Farnsworth  (The Newshour, PBS)
    -REVIEW: The Ties That Bind and the Regrets That Strangle (MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: Oh, Where Have You Been? (Alida Becker, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: (Dan Cryer, Salon)
    -REVIEW: (Leah Odze Epstein, Book Page)
    -REVIEW: 'Billy' captivates with quiet strength (USA Today)
    -REVIEW (Denver Post)
    -Reader's Companion to Charming Billy
    -Questions for Discussion on Charming Billy  by Alice McDermott
    -EXCERPT: (Bold Type)
    -'Charming Billy' woos the critics (USA Today)
    -A top book award brings changes to the 'ordinary' life of Alice McDermott (Mary Ann Gwinn, Seattle Times)
    -REVIEW: The Lessons of Loss Learned in Childhood (M. Katukani, NY Times)
    -That perfect gesture: In the fiction of Alice McDermott, the heart is found in the
      quiet touch (Gail Caldwell, Boston Globe)