Charming Billy (McDermott)

It was challenging to read Charming Billy in bits and pieces as McDermott moves back and forth in time, uses a nameless narrator, and has characters connected in a way that they should be connected in a true community (especially one that has moved, almost together, from one country to another), but can be difficult to track if you are only able to read pieces at a time.

This is not really a plot-driven book. It is more of an elegy for charming Billy, a soul who lost his life (while living) to a lie. But Billy is not the only one. We all, in McDermott’s world, suffer because of the lies we must tell ourselves to live.

McDermott’s writing is gorgeous, sad, and true. Some samples –

But what Billy was asking for in those days was not mercy, or maybe it was mercy of another kind. The mercy of time. He needed time – weeks at work and bits of his salary tucked away and saved – but he needed to stop time as well. He needed the world to hold its breath for a while; for all affections, all hopes, all plans for the future to stop in their tracks for a while, to remain as they were, all across the city. For all of us to be true to our own intentions.

But such truth is not possible. This is one of the reasons why Billy can’t live in this world. More –

In the arc of an unremarkable life, a life whose triumphs are small and personal, whose trials are ordinary enough, as tempered in their pain as in their resolution of pain, the claim of exclusivity in love requires both a certain kind of courage and a good dose of delusion.

How lonely they all seemed to me that night, my father’s family and friends, lonely souls every one of them, despite husbands and children and cousins and friends, all their hopes, in the end, their pairings and procreation and their keeping in touch, keeping track, futile in the end, failing in the end to keep them from seeing that nothing they felt, in the end, has made any difference.

Every one of us living proof, Billy, that it’s a powerless thing, this loving one another, nothing like what you had imagined. Except in the way it persists.

So if you have time to read it in long stretches, do so.


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