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Harp Music

CHARMING BILLY. By Alice McDermott . Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 280 pp. $21

January 11, 1998|RICHARD EDER | Richard Eder is The Times' Book Critic

"Romantic Ireland's dead and gone / It's with O'Leary in the grave," Yeats wrote. Billy, the "charming Billy" of the title, is in his grave right at the start of Alice McDermott's novel, which begins, in fact, with the 47-member funeral party having lunch afterward.

Billy, who quoted Yeats incessantly, represents the romantic strain in McDermott's taut and beautifully written study of an Irish American clan. He was funny, warm, kind and graceful, and beloved by relatives and friends. He was their insouciant hero, their harp.

He was also their scourge, blight and death's-head: an alcoholic who butchered both his own life and the illusions he raised in others. Scooped up from the street by the police, he lay in the Veterans Administration hospital, his lineaments black and swollen to twice their delicate and scholarly dimensions by the final explosion of an outraged liver.

"Charming Billy" is McDermott's second venture at interweaving the realistic and mythical dimensions of Irish American life. She also wrote the superb "That Night," a novel of teenage love in the suburbs, and her "At Weddings and Wakes" was a work of evocative detail whose narrative and thematic focus was not quite up to its emotional artistry. "Charming Billy," by contrast, is intensely focused. It is a series of interrogations in disparate voices of Billy Lynch's life and death.

McDermott's writing never does fewer than two or three different things at once. Her realism is so blazingly accurate that it hurts; her doors catch our fingers, her food gives us heartburn. At the same time, each distinct atom of reality splits under her artisan hammer and releases a world of wild, lost particles: charm, for example, and others the physicists have not yet invented, such as grief, comedy, even happiness.

Every detail of the post-funeral lunch is not only right but so right that it links up to a disquieting universal accuracy. A blue-collar Bronx tavern with catering facilities (convenient to the cemetery), the long line of tables set diagonally across the back room (not often used and with a faint trace of mildew), a menu of canned fruit salad, medium rare roast beef, boiled potatoes, green beans amandine (my only cavil: I think it would have been misspelled "almondine"), vanilla ice cream in steel bowls, pitchers of ice tea and beer.

And yet--McDermott shuns categories--it is all surprisingly good. And yet--McDermott is an extraordinary writer--none of it is food: it is the sheer disembodied heaviness and dreamlike daze of a funerary event.

The first section is entirely devoted to the lunch. Like the virtuoso baseball section that begins Don DeLillo's "Underworld," McDermott's leaves us breathless with the feeling of having glimpsed a universe and avid to explore it. Recounted by the narrator--a young cousin who has moved out West and brings a balance of familiarity and discovery to her account--the meal itself and all it suggests occupy only one level of the story.

Another is the narrator's glimpse at the far-off end of the table of Maeve, the widow--universally praised for courage as well as "the courage it took to look out onto life from a face as plain as butter." Yet there is a sudden surprising beauty in her, the narrator notices. For the moment, we will leave Maeve; she will be back. It is McDermott's skill to lay down a number of sustained ground notes that rise in their turn and develop motifs of their own.

At the same time, at the narrator's end of the table, Billy's sisters and cousins are setting out his life. In a variety of versions, they praise his goodness and charm and lament his troubles with alcohol. They venture the story of his lifelong obsession, his marriage notwithstanding, with an Irish girl he had loved, sent money to and hoped to marry, only to have her die, it was said, of pneumonia. They flare into an argument that is the book's thematic backbone.

Was Billy's fatal drunkenness part of a grand romantic tragedy, as old Cousin Danny insists? Or was it simply a disease that would have gotten him anyway, as sister Rosemary asserts? It is the two strains: romance versus realism, the deadly poetry versus the deadeningly prosaic. Cousin Danny, himself a drinker with a blighted life, speaks out for poetry's tribal ruinousness:

"Say he was too loyal. Say he was disappointed. Say he made way too much of the Irish girl and afterwards couldn't look life square in the face. But give him some credit for feeling, for having a hand in his own fate. Don't say it was a disease that blindsided him and wiped out everything he was."

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