The 2011 nominations for the National Book Award were announced a week or so ago, which made our October selection especially appropriate. Alice McDermott won the award in 1998 for Charming Billy, a story Kirkus Reviews described as a “gentle portrait of an alcoholic freshly dead.”
We considered our previous selection, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, to be a distinctively American narrative. Charming Billy also focuses on the unique experience of Irish-American immigrants. Many of our group members can claim Irish heritage or could vividly remember growing up in the suburbs and boroughs of Manhattan. It was enjoyable to compare personal experiences to some of the cultural descriptions along with the rich level of detail that made this tale ring true.
Another hot topic in the discussion was the inescapable presence of alcohol in the book. Beyond the stereotypes, we noted the importance and prevalence of an Irish ‘drinking culture.’ Those who have traveled in Ireland described the significance of buying rounds for others and the pub as a community gathering place for all generations.
While Billy was clearly a textbook alcoholic, we discussed how this might be a more difficult problem to identify or avoid in a culture that has such a heavy focus on drinking. It seemed that some characters in the book could only acknowledge Billy’s drinking problem as a direct response to tragic events, an issue that could have been avoided if only things had turned out as planned. Other family members, such as Dennis, realized that Billy would have found a reason to drink regardless.
Opinion was also split (amongst our group) in determining if our title character was actually “charming.” While Billy did always have a kind word or note for his vast network of friends, those closest to him suffered through his sozzled antics regularly. Some also argued that Billy was a hard worker and intensely loyal – but this loyalty could also be seen as a harmful fixation.
Perhaps the lesson here is that it’s hard to pigeonhole anyone into a single trait or even to pinpoint one life event that could have changed everything. As the author said in a 1998 interview, “it’s not enough for [his friends and family] to say, well, Billy’s had an unfortunate life. They need to make something more of his life. And they do that by telling stories about him. They keep the faith that his life was valuable, even though on the surface it seems only pathetic.”