The Great American Road Trip
Book: Charming Billy (1998) by Alice McDermott
Happy St. Patrick’s Day. Naturally, Music Road will have some great Irish music for our road trip today.
This passage is from an NPR NewsHour interview just after Alice McDermott won the National Book Award for Charming Billy. McDermott said:
Being Irish-American, myself, Irish-American material is readily at hand to me. I know Irish-American people. I know what their homes look like. I know what they have for dinner. I know how they turn a phrase. And so since it was readily available, it saves me lots of research time, and I can spend the time instead trying to develop the things that I think are important in fiction, and that is the inner life of the characters.
The story of Charming Billy starts at the wake in the Bronx for Billy Lynch and spirals backward through time with the stories of family members and friends. Although the story goes back to the early 20th century, the narrator, child of a World War II veteran who is Billy’s best friend, carries us into the twenty-first century.
Dialogue is uncanny, as McDermott uses the ritual clichés people pronounce, like “its unbelievable still” or “it’s a terrible thing, Father” about the death. People talk about the differences between Protestants and Catholics (Protestants use the lord’s first name) and the coarseness of Midwesterners (because they’re around farm animals.)
McDermott’s sentences feel just right. “The narrow house was a gallery of Billy’s life that evening–how could anyone help but think it?”
These lines play out against extraordinary observation of ordinary details. One widow marries a second time because the husband-to-be owns a house. By marrying him, she has the luxury of being able to set up her ironing board and leave it up, instead of sharing space in a crowded apartment basement. She now has the luxury of closets to hang clothes in.
Doilies on the tables, the framed cross-stitched Prayer of St. Francis, the cement steps out front or the peeling paint on wooden steps or the marble steps of slightly more prosperous homes all denote Irish-American life in the Bronx.
Dialogue rolls poetically, echoing earlier thoughts, as when Marie, wife to the alcoholic Billy and daughter to an alcoholic father repeats her fatalistic, “It doesn’t make a difference.”
These are people who never stray far from the teachings of the church, their thinking framed by nuns and priests even when they question whether religion is merely fairy tales. And if those illusions help get them through life, then what other illusions do individuals depend on? Finally, we are asked to consider whether truth is important at all?
McDermott has written a small miracle of a book. I felt that I had attended Billy’s wake myself, met the reliable Dennis, plain Marie, Eva and Mary, the girls from Ireland who worked as nursemaids. I vividly saw a part of New York City that is new to me, since, like most visitors, I stick to Manhattan.
McDermott has published six novels–the latest, After This, in 2008. She sticks strictly to the Irish American families, for reasons explained in the interview referenced above.
As for our Great American Road Trip, I confess to a slight cop-out when it comes to New York state. In my mind, New York City practically constitutes a separate state, so on St. Patrick’s Day I chose to feature a book for the Irish there. Next week, we’ll return to New York State, to the city of Buffalo. (Click on the photo of the Irish lace doily to learn more about the photographer)
Have you visited other boroughs of New York, other than Manhattan? What took you there?
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