The National Book Award is a career maker, a news story, and an event; it counts. So when the fiction prize at this year’s ceremonies went not to Tom Wolfe’s “A Man in Full,” the odds-on favorite, but instead to Alice McDermott’s “Charming Billy,” a novel most people had never even heard of, jaws dropped. And yet, if I do say so myself, and with nothing but admiration for Tom Wolfe, it wasn’t just great fun (it’s always that when David clobbers Goliath all over again), it was the right choice.
In the early 1980s, a group of Irish-American relatives (a “legion of cousins,” mostly) assemble on a rainy afternoon at a little bar and grill in the Bronx. They’ve just come back from the cemetery after burying Billy Lynch, an alcoholic who finally drank himself to death. As McDermott takes us from table to table, introducing her characters, we eavesdrop on various conversations and recollections, hearing all about (we think) the “disappointment and disbelief” that wrecked poor Billy’s life. As a young man just returned from World War II, he met and fell in love with a pretty Irish girl — a nanny — on Long Island. After she returned to Ireland, he’d saved and borrowed, then finally sent her money to fly back to the States and marry him. But then came word — delivered to Billy Lynch by his favorite cousin, Dennis — that the girl had died of pneumonia. In the years that followed, Billy’s life became a drinking life, a life haunted by the kind of sadness that can’t be cured.
This, of course, is the stuff of mawkish saloon songs, but McDermott (“At Weddings and Wakes,” “That Night”) has more on her mind than another chorus of “One for the Road.” That soon becomes apparent when Dennis Lynch tells his grown daughter (who narrates much of the novel) that Billy’s girlfriend never died at all but simply kept his money, married a man in Ireland, and opened a gas station. A well-meant deception, intended by Dennis to spare a lovesick relative the pain of rejection, shadows both the liar and the lied-to for the next 37 years, linking both cousins in a web of sorrow and guilt, resentment and uneasy affection.
Despite its slimness (a mere 280 pages), “Charming Billy” — like, say, “The Great Gatsby” or “To Kill a Mockingbird” — earns its authority, its sheer Americanness, by remaining stubbornly focused, even parochial. What appears at first to be a simple tale of lost love in an outer borough deepens slowly into a complex drama about “change and cruelty, separation and loss, pity and sorrow.” For all their ordinariness, for all of their public reserve, McDermott’s New York Irish Catholics — meter readers, shoe salesmen, housewives, and bus drivers — are a pretty passionate bunch. They can, and often do, break your heart.