Charming Billy by Alice McDermott

41Oz24NnuOL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ Charming Billy: A Novel

by Alice McDermott

The story opens with the funeral of Billy Lynch, an almost mythical character.  During his life, Billy was well-loved; husband, friend, sensitive, gregarious, and ultimately tragic.  Billy was a hopeless drunk who tried numerous times to get sober, but who, in the end, drank himself to death.  In the shabby pub following his funeral, his loved ones gather to remember him, and talk turns, naturally, to “the Irish girl” whose untimely death forty years previous broke Billy’s heart and, it is assumed, led to his self-destructive alcoholism.

In the summer of 1945, Billy and his best friend Dennis, fresh out of the army and waiting for their real lives to begin, meet Mary and Eva, two sisters visiting from Ireland and working as nannies for a rich family in the Hamptons.  Billy falls hard for Eva.  Their courtship is brief, for she must return to Ireland, but she does so with the promise that she will return to New York and marry Billy when he has saved enough to send for her.  Desperate to have her back, Billy works two jobs and scrimps, saves, and borrows enough over the next year to send for Eva, only to receive word that Eva has died of pneumonia.

Although he eventually marries the plain and loyal Maeve, Billy never recovers from Eva’s death, and turns to the bottle to console himself.

Even more tragic, however, than Eva’s untimely death is the fact that she never really died.  In truth, she accepted the money he sent to Ireland and used it to buy a gas station with the man she actually married.  Unable to break the news of this terrible betrayal to Billy, his best friend Dennis tells him instead that Eva has died, thinking it kinder.  Dennis, of course, lives with regret over this well-meaning lie, and many years later, Billy learns the truth.

The story unfolds through the eyes of Dennis’s daughter – someone less than intimately involved with Billy, but aware of his story and able to make keen observations about the people and events that form the novel.  McDermott’s writing is restrained, and the story is evocative and bleak.  Anyone who has been intimate with alcoholism will likely recognize aspects of Billy.  Ultimately, this is a sad story about the destructive forces of grief, addiction, and even loyalty.

I must confess that I didn’t love this book, despite its National Book Award and critical acclaim.  It’s one of those novels that exasperates me because I expect to be wowed by it and am left with only lukewarm feelings.  It’s very well-written, and places, people, and events are masterfully depicted.  I can’t really put my finger on what was missing for me; it very well may have just not been my cup of tea.

Drunk Mom by Jowita Bydlowska

9780143126508m Drunk Mom: A Memoir
by Jowita Bydlowska

I was contacted by the author’s publicist a few months back with a request that I read and review this book, a memoir of alcoholism.  “Sure,” I said.  “Send me the book.”  The book arrived in the mail, and it sat on my night table, merged with the pile of other to-read books on my night table.  It took awhile for me to get to it, partly because that to-read pile never, ever shrinks, and partly because I sort of dreaded reading a memoir about alcoholism because alcoholism has profoundly impacted my own life – I knew this book would strike some painful nerves for me.

That Bydlowska, a Polish transplant to Canada as a teen, had a drinking problem was not news to her.  She had confronted her alcoholism in her twenties and achieved sobriety through Alcoholics Anonymous for a number of years.  Then at her best friend’s bachelorette party, the bartender asks her “Just soda?” when she orders her usual non-alcoholic drink, and suddenly, her defenses against alcohol evaporate in an instant.  So begins her relapse.  Shortly after, she discovers she is pregnant – the morning after a drunken binge – and manages to stay mostly sober for the duration of her pregnancy.  But when her son is born, Bydlowska quickly descends into full-blown alcoholism – and it isn’t pretty.

On these pages she recounts the horrors of experiencing blackouts on a regular basis – of coming to with mysterious bruises and injuries and no recollection of how they occurred, of giant blank spots in her memory, of hiding bottles of vodka in her baby’s diaper bag, of her “mental map” of liquor stores, of drinking until passing out while caring for her son, of researching how poisoned her breast milk was after indulging again and again – and of the lies she repeatedly told herimage boyfriend, her friends, and most of all, herself.  It is a sad tale of an addict’s capacity for delusion and rationalization.

As she dissolves into full-blown alcoholism once again, she throws frequent barbs at AA.  She attempts a “harm reduction” group, which rejects the label of “alcoholic” and attempts to teach moderation in drinking.  She goes into inpatient rehab when her son is less than a year old.  She makes deals with herself about her drinking.  She makes promises.  Nothing, of course, works.  All the while, I’m reading, often with my fists clenched, thinking, “You stupid bitch.  You pathetic loser.”  Because, you see, I’ve had too many alcoholics in my life, and my sympathies tend to lean towards those around the addict, and less towards the addict who is wreaking hell on everyone around them.  And yet, I was secretly rooting for her.  I couldn’t help it.  When finally, “limping on my broken toe, I march all the way across town to an AA meeting,” I pumped my fist in the air, going, “Yes!” with tears in my eyes.

Obviously this book will stay with me.  Bydlowska is a gifted writer, and though the subject matter is not pleasant, she writes with clarity and utter honesty, with a thread of dark humor running through the whole thing.  Ultimately, this is a story of hope and possibility.  I hope it acquires a huge readership.

You can find out more about Jowita Bydlowska here.