Picks and Pans Review: Charming Billy

updated 02/02/1998 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/02/1998 01:00AM

by Alice McDermott

In her fourth novel, Brooklyn-born Alice McDermott demonstrates anew that she is a writer in a league all her own, a reputation she cemented with 1992's lyrical At Weddings and Wakes.

The plot of Charming Billy, such as it is, engagingly mines the loves, losses and lies of three generations of New York's Irish-American Lynch clan. McDermott's particular artistry, however, lies in her virtuosic ability to shuffle past, present and future. Fluidly shifting backward and forward in time, she slowly layers on the detail that infuses these ordinary lives with poignant nobility.

We first encounter the Lynches as they gather at a Bronx tavern to mourn the passing of Billy, a charmer (with a penchant for quoting the poetry of W. B. Yeats) who has drunk himself to death. Billy's downward spiral, the relatives reminisce, began with the death some 40 years earlier of an Irish lass he planned to marry. Readers soon learn that the girl's "death" was a lie impetuously concocted long ago by a cousin to spare Billy the pain of a callous jilting. As the dual consequences of the girl's betrayal and the cousin's lie unfold, McDermott lays bare an arbitrary universe where individual lives prove to be "only a matter of chance and happenstance, nothing irrepeatable, or irreplaceable." Nothing that is, save McDermott's prose. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $21)

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