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Charming Billy and Me

books and culture

Charming Billy and Me

How a washed-up actor found faith in fiction August 19, 2016
Arts and Culture

I don’t read much fiction. I’m a periodicals man, mostly. I’ve been let down too many times—especially by modern writers—to take a chance on a novel, even one that comes recommended by a friend or critic whose opinion I trust. If the fiction itch flares, I’d rather scratch it by dipping back into something I’ve already read. I picked up Alice McDermott’s Charming Billy again after all these years because I was in the mood for something good, and I knew it would be good, because it was good the first time I read it—and the second.

Brooklyn-born McDermott published Charming Billy in 1998. Readers and reviewers were captivated by its note-perfect rendering of a New York Irish-American clan dealing with the not-entirely unexpected death of the alcoholic and adored Billy Lynch. (It won the National Book Award.) Every Irish family has an uncle or a cousin or a brother or a son like Billy. He’s fond of a story, knows a bit of poetry, and rarely looks askance at the offer of a drink. He’s a stereotype, but only in the sense that everyone is a stereotype.

In 1998, I was a stereotype myself: I’d made a losing bet on a Hollywood career. My five years in Los Angeles were spent trying to convince the film industry that I wasn’t, in fact, a well-adjusted, All-American boy from an intact family. No, I wanted producers, directors, and casting agents to see me as an edgy young man, so I grew my hair long, got a tattoo, tied flannel shirts around my waist, and tromped around sunny Southern California in giant black Doc Marten boots. The act didn’t sell, and I returned home to New Jersey with my proverbial tail between my legs. I was about to turn 25. I’d done one semester of college and never held a real job. I was casting about for something firm upon which to anchor my stunted sense of self.

Charming Billy did the trick. The atmosphere and sensibility of the novel reflected a family culture I recognized. Reading it, I was able to imagine, perhaps for the first time, a grown-up mode of living that was far less sterile and confining than I had imagined adulthood could be. The characters in McDermott’s tale spoke and behaved like people I’d grown up around. Their humor was black, such as a remark about a cousin “who went to AA in order to die of cancer, not cirrhosis.” Their Irish talent for bearing up through grief rang true. So did the way they lived and communicated—or failed to. For me, Charming Billy arrived right on time.

The story unfolds as family stories usually do, in a string of incomplete revelations about Billy’s messy life. McDermott has admitted that she’s not concerned with plot, and Charming Billy doesn’t have one per se, unless you think that the piecing together of fragmentary and apparently unrelated events qualifies. McDermott’s book is plot-like—as is life—but there is no rising action, no forward movement, no denouement. There is only memory, with all its imperfections. “I’m interested in character,” McDermott said in an interview last year. “I’m especially interested in how language—story, memory, names, word choice—reflects and reveals character.”

Billy’s story happens in flashback. McDermott unspools it the way an older relative at a family party might, editing as she goes, lingering on certain moments, expanding them, slowing down time, leaving you, a member of the younger generation, to piece the truth together.

At the heart of the story is a lie. In the late 1940s, on the eastern end of Long Island, cousins Billy and Dennis fall for a pair of Irish sisters. When Billy’s girlfriend, Eva, returns to Ireland, he pledges to come up with enough money to bring her back and marry her. He sends the money; she never comes. Dennis learns the truth: Eva has married her childhood sweetheart and started a life in Ireland. Dennis knows that the betrayal will crush Billy. Rather than break his cousin’s gallant heart with news of this emotional treachery, Dennis opts instead to lie. Eva, he tells Billy, died of pneumonia. It’s a good lie, because it’s believable. Pneumonia was the kind of ailment that could plausibly take the life of someone living in the isolated, rural Ireland of the 1940s. The consequences of that lie ripple throughout the cousins’ lives. There’s more to Charming Billy, but that’s the root.

I was aware that Charming Billy was considered a Catholic novel, and that McDermott was considered a Catholic writer—she calls herself a “public Catholic”—but that didn’t mean anything to me in 1998, though I’d been raised a Catholic. My parents came up the old-fashioned way. My mother was taught by nuns from kindergarten through college. In 1963, my father spent a few months “behind the wall” preparing to become a Holy Cross brother. They were faithful people—well educated, well catechized, from a great tradition of Irish Catholicism.

Then the sixties and seventies happened. By the time I became a teenager in the eighties, my parents had let the family drift away from the church. I started hearing a new term around the house: “cultural Catholic.” It meant that we supported the Catholics on hunger strike in Northern Ireland, but not the pro-life movement in the United States. It meant that we had strong opinions about the sex-abuse scandals and reforming the hierarchy, but we didn’t go to mass. It meant that by the time I was 21, I was calling myself a lapsed Catholic (or, more poetically, a collapsed Catholic, as I once heard the writer and raconteur Malachy McCourt say). 

I was just shy of 21 when I landed in Los Angeles in August 1994—the summer of O.J. and Forrest Gump and the baseball strike. Earlier that year, the Northridge earthquake had caused $20 million worth of damage to the City of Angels, much of it still visible in the cracked freeways and yellow-tagged apartment buildings. Northridge was not the Big One—the apocalyptic tremor that scientists say will one day crack California along the San Andreas fault like a stoned-wheat thin—but the trauma it caused was obvious. In retrospect, I should have picked up on the warning: this is a place where things fall apart.

I knew precisely two people in L.A. when I arrived. Both were friends from New York, where I had been studying acting. One introduced me to a casting agent looking for a young, long-haired actor for a part in an independent movie about a rock band. When another actor turned the part down, I got the job. I had been in L.A. about a month.

Making movies is harder than it looks. My first time in front of the camera was a disaster. I was nervous. Everyone on the set—the crew, the other actors, the producers—seemed to be taking the measure of me. My character was a motor mouth, prone to long monologues. When the assistant director called for the camera to turn over and the sound man barked “Speed!” to indicate that the tape was running, I let fly at a mile-a-minute, spitting out my lines and waving my arms wildly. From behind the camera, a terrible commotion erupted. Voices were yelling: “Whoa! Stop!” I was so green I’d forgotten to wait for the director to call “Action!”

That first take was awful. The second was worse. In those days, movies were made on film—actual film was running through the camera—so doing take after take cost real money. (Today, digital technology allows directors to do as many takes they like, at almost no cost.) I could feel the stares and hear the whispers. One of the actors pulled me aside. He was a New York guy—a little bit Puerto Rican, a little bit Irish. He told me to relax, take a breath, slow down. I tried that, but it didn’t work. We reset, and I did my monologue four more times before the director said, “Uh, let’s move on.” Luckily, I was too naïve to know that actors get fired. The thought never crossed my mind. The producers and the director must have sat around a table that night, discussing whether to keep me on the film. Eventually, I got the hang of things.

For the next six months, my phone rang constantly with calls for auditions. The process is emotionally grueling, artistically bankrupting, and even degrading. Your talent gets evaluated, along with your appearance, in the crassest and unapologetic ways. I was once asked to drop my trousers at a casting call for a blue jeans commercial. I did it without thinking.

Then, without warning, I hit the jackpot. I was offered a co-starring part in an hour-long pilot for a major network—and more money for a fortnight’s work than many people earn in a year. The comedic premise: two slackers get jobs at the morgue and start solving crimes. In the unimaginative, self-referential Hollywood style, the show was described as “Beavis & Butthead meets Quincy.” When I arrived at the production office in Vancouver, British Columbia, someone handed me an envelope full of Canadian currency—“per diem” money, which I would be paid in addition to my already generous salary. This time I waited for the director to say “Action!” before delivering my lines, but when the network passed on the pilot, reality came crashing down on my little fairy tale. If I was going to make it as an actor now, I was going to have to scrape for it.

In film industry parlance, I couldn’t get arrested. The phone stopped ringing. The constant rejection dragged me down. My nights got long. So did the enemies list I started compiling on the back page of my Filofax. Anyone who kept me waiting 15 minutes or longer for a scheduled meeting made the list. So did anyone who failed to treat me with the kingly respect I felt entitled to. Casting directors hang posters in their offices of the TV shows and movies they’ve worked on. In one office I visited, an entire hallway had been lined with posters of “Saved by the Bell,” the long-running, lowbrow sitcom aimed at tweens. The lady responsible for casting this masterpiece asked me what I had worked on. I told her about the movie. I told her about Sundance Film Festival, where the independent film about the rock band had been a hit. I told her about the pilot. “Oh yeah, I heard that wasn’t very good,” she said. “It was no ‘Saved by the Bell,’” I replied.

I didn’t get that job. In fact, I didn’t get any more jobs. I would enter a casting director or a producer’s office determined and positive. “Smile,” I’d tell myself. “Be in a good mood.” But these were people who enjoyed watching actors grovel. In Hollywood’s hierarchy of power, unemployed actors rank at the absolute bottom. Until an actor breaks through and gets a job, he is at the mercy of nearly everyone in the Hollywood food chain. Agents, casting directors, and stagehands spend most of their time serving the needs of “above the line” talent: hot-shot actors and well-paid directors. When an unemployed actor comes along, the opportunity to make up for all of that boot-licking is too tempting for many to let pass.

I slept for a while on a Murphy bed in a studio apartment in Glendale, outside Hollywood, in the hot, ugly San Fernando Valley. It was brown in the Glendale apartment. The carpet, the walls, the hallways—everything in that building was the color of cigars. The super offered me a brown bottle of penicillin once when I had a cold. “It’s from Tijuana,” he said. When I demurred, he laughed. “You wanna suffer? Be my guest.”

Unable to find work and unwilling to go home, I began to lose my bearings. The brittle chaparral of the Southern California landscape unnerved me. I never acclimated to the canyon fires and aftershocks, the donut shops on every corner, and the sunlight—the constant, hammering sunlight—that made every day feel like waking up from a nap on the beach. I spent more and more time with a slightly dodgy crowd of night crawlers and unemployables. Someone should have put a yellow tag on me.

I came home to my brown apartment one day to find that a leaky pipe in the ceiling had caused the roof to cave in. I slept under that hole for several nights, certain that one of the lean and hungry-looking raccoons hanging around in the palm tree outside my window would belly-waggle in through the crawlspace and murder me in my Murphy bed. It was time to leave.

I must have heard about Charming Billy from the New York Times, which reviewed it the month I arrived back in New Jersey. Probably I was sitting at the small kitchen table of my childhood home, eating toast with butter and jam and sipping strong tea brewed by my mother. The Times was always spread out on that table; my people like to read aloud from newspapers. Charming Billy hooked me at once. The first scene takes place in a Bronx bar that “lacking only draught Guinness and a peat fire, might have been a pub in rural Ireland. Or, lacking dialogue by John Millington Synge, the set of a rural Irish play.” That was the bottom of page one. McDermott had my attention.

I was working then at Hennessey’s, the bar my parents owned for 30 years, beneath the train trestle in my hometown. I was licking my wounds, trying to shake off my Hollywood misadventures. I needed to save money and plan my next move. Sometimes I worked a double shift from 9 am until closing and then came back the next morning. During breaks in the action I’d smoke, drink coffee from a pint glass, and chat with the regulars about any topic that whistled in off the breeze. They were amiable drunks, one and all. Just like Billy Lynch.

Hennessey’s was a neighborhood joint, with sticky floors and bad ventilation. We sold almost as much Guinness as Budweiser. By midafternoon, the air was mostly cigarette smoke. I’d listen with all the empathy I could muster to the retelling of the same sodden stories of hearts betrayed, careers gone sideways, and dreams deferred. It was exasperating work—the solutions to their predicaments seemed obvious to me. Stop dwelling on your mistakes. Stop stewing about ancient injustices. Most of all, stop spinning around on this barstool every night.

No one took my advice, just as Billy never took Dennis’s advice when he’d call the house at 3 am, drunk and rambling about the injustice of Eva’s short life. “What do we need the Redemption for?” Billy asks Dennis one night. “If death isn’t terrible. If we’re reconciled? Why do we need heaven or hell? It makes no difference. If death doesn’t trouble us, the injustice of it, then we don’t need heaven or hell, do we? It might as well be a lie.” Dennis knows that Billy’s life has been shaped by a lie, and so does the reader, but Billy doesn’t. Or does he? Would it matter if he did?

A deeply religious man, Billy finds transcendence in the simple act of living, and he spends as much time in church pews as he does on bar stools. His job with Con Ed takes him all over the five boroughs of New York City. After an appointment or before a sales call, he never misses a chance to poke his head into the local house of worship—even a synagogue will do—for what McDermott calls his “sustenance.” As a wandering gypsy in the vast metropolis, Billy is sustained by the sense “that in every town, up to the Bronx and out to Staten Island and even far into New Jersey, the need for faith, for that which was steadfast and true, had given rise to these holy places.” Like committed drinkers the world over, Billy finds the truth of his emotions—and perhaps the eternal truth of the universe—easier to access while in his cups. Unlike the drunks at Hennesseys, however, he becomes more eloquent as the hours get small.

Despite my collapsed faith, I, too, was drawn to churches. Before I went to L.A., I had spent a semester at Fordham University in the Bronx. Though I was a mere cultural Catholic, I’d often end up in the University Church praying for some divine direction. When I was at my lowest in L.A., I’d occasionally pop into a church in my neighborhood with a red tile roof and stucco walls—nothing like the churches I’d known as a boy. It seemed like an outpost on the frontier, the kind of church you’d see in a Gary Cooper Western. I found solace there. Billy and I were simpatico.

Cover of the Picador Modern Classics paperback edition of Alice McDermott's "Charming Billy"

Returning to a book that you love can be risky. Time and experience distort memory. A reader matures, his perspective changes, but the other members of McDermott’s holy trinity—writer and narrator—remain as they always were, preserved between paper covers in black and white. When I read Charming Billy again, a decade had passed since the whimpering conclusion of my Hollywood adventure. I’d practically become a different person in the intervening years. My politics had changed, as had my career ambitions. I’d married and fathered a child. I was on my way back to the Catholic Church. Feeling the weight of expectation, dreading the possibility of failure, I was again in the market for something on which to anchor myself.

Charming Billy was as satisfying and inspiring as I remembered, but I read it with fresh eyes and a new perspective. What struck me the second time through was not the familiarity of the characters or the powerful and textured sense of place that McDermott’s economical prose conveys. Rather, I was gripped by the theme of self-sacrifice, of love amid the ruins of a life eroded by booze, lies, and emotional repression. I had somehow missed this the first time.

Crushed and confused by the injustice of Eva’s fate, Billy marries Maeve, a plain girl with no suitors. Like so many Irish women of her era, Maeve’s only vocation is to care for her terminally alcoholic father. In marrying Billy, she takes on another hopeless case. As the title suggests, Billy is everyone’s idea of a fine fellow. He has an endearing habit of composing poems on bar napkins, playbills, and coasters and dropping them in the mail. Everyone has a story of receiving an unexpected Billy Lynch postcard sent from rural Ireland or the eastern tip of Long Island. Not everyone knows, as Maeve does, the nightly ritual of waiting for him to come home or pouring him into his bed. As often as not, Maeve must prevail upon ever-loyal Dennis to drive over and help drag a legless Billy up the stairs.  

Caring for an infant child is not precisely analogous to caring for a hopeless alcoholic, but it’s not far off, either. Each brings sleeplessness, constant worry, paralyzing doubt, and the occasional sleep-deprived glimpse of innocence in the eyes of your helpless ward. Above all, caring for each requires self-sacrifice of the type that can only be the product of a love so deep and profound and elemental that no earthly phenomenon could derail it. No fatigue could extinguish it. No lie could disprove its existence. That’s the love Maeve has for Billy. That’s the love McDermott has for her characters. And that’s the love a father has for his children. Writer, narrator, reader—a holy trinity, indeed.

Charming Billy is a Catholic book by a Catholic writer. McDermott’s vocabulary is deeply, richly Catholic. Her descriptive arsenal is stocked with Catholic allusions and Catholic symbols. All of this only revealed itself in full to me last year, when I picked up this brilliant book a third time. In the intervening years, my faith had matured, along with, perhaps, my eye for detail and my ear for the music of prose.

I don’t know whether it’s fair to interpret Billy as a Christ figure. Probably not, though the confusion and loss experienced by those who mourn him pulsates with biblical overtones. A priest’s arrival at Maeve’s home after Billy’s funeral is announced by “three short raps that might have come from a conjurer’s table.” The mere presence of the priest has a transformational effect on Maeve and the assembled mourners. Tactile Catholicism permeates the book, as it does the lives of McDermott’s characters. Consider her description of a stairwell in Maeve’s house:

On the landing there was a round table draped with a pale blue cloth and covered with Hummel children, some of whom had black veins running across their legs and shoulders and through their necks, clearly places where they had been broken and then carefully repaired. Above this table was an oil portrait of the Christ Child that to the uninitiated would seem to be a portrait of a beautiful and dark-skinned prepubescent girl. A framed, cross-stitched copy of the Irish blessing and another of the prayer of St. Francis on the wall between the two bedrooms. The bathroom door at the head of the stairs was closed and I could hear water running behind it.

I overlooked many of these potent images the first two times that I read Charming Billy. I missed entirely the imagery of the altar—a conjurer’s table—“draped with a pale blue cloth”; the oil; the water; the fragile children, broken and repaired. These are the very things of faith, the words, the images, the sacramental fluids. In my collapsed state, they meant next to nothing to me. As a grown man, as a father and husband, I found that they meant everything.

Charming Billy gave me something I needed at a time I desperately needed it—a way of looking at my place in the world that made cultural, emotional, and, finally, religious sense. It’s a book about redemption—not an easy one or a neat one. In the bar after Billy’s funeral, McDermott’s characters squirm at the thought of hoisting their beer glasses in tribute to a man who had drunk himself to death just a few days earlier. “Not missing the irony of the drinks in their hands and the drink that had killed him, but redeeming, perhaps, the pleasure of a drink or two, on a sad, wet afternoon, in the company of old friends, from the miserable thing that a drink had become in his life,” McDermott writes. “Redeeming the affection they had felt for him, once torn apart by his willfulness, his indifference, making something worthwhile of it, something valuable that had been well spent, after all.”  

Conversions don’t happen overnight, and there is no drama to relate in the story of my own. Like McDermott’s plot, it just happened. Life carried me along through its inevitable mysterious stages. When I became a parent, I sought for my children only what all parents seek: a backstory, a place to stand, a faith that works, a future of hope, a promise of redemption. I had spent so much time lying on my brown couch, in my brown Glendale apartment, staring at the chipped plaster on the tobacco-stained ceiling, wondering who I was and where I belonged in the world; wondering, finally, whether anything was steadfast and true. It never occurred to me that the answer was quite simple. Charming Billy helped me understand that I didn’t have to be a cultural Catholic; I could be a real one. I could make something worthwhile out of my failure in Hollywood. Alice McDermott’s book helped me see that love, like family, is an end in itself.

Maybe I should read more fiction.

Top Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images

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