By Vanessa V. Friedman
Updated January 23, 1998 at 05:00 AM EST

Charming Billy

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CHARMING BILLY Alice McDermott (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $22) An old alcoholic dies, and 47 of his nearest and dearest gather for mourning and memories. Set entirely on the day of the funeral, this is the dead man’s story, but more than that, it is also an exquisitely rendered portrait of a certain kind of immigrant Irish society. The dead man is, of course, the charming Billy of the title, a man who spent his entire adult life lamenting the death of his wife-to-be with beer and whiskey. His relatives and friends memorialize him and try to justify his fruitless life; tales overlap tales in a singsong pattern of Irish-American brogue and family history. The result evokes a lovely, timeworn miniature. A-

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Charming Billy

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