The Book Club

Family Values

Dear Judith,

In answer to your question about the narrator of Charming Billy–did I find her to be a cheap device? I didn’t, no. Does it make complete sense that this middle-aged daughter knows as much as she does about everyone in her extended family circle, everyone in this story? No, it does not, but for me this sort of call depends on how persuasive I find the entire fiction–not whether it makes logical sense, but whether it works for me, whether I’m willing to sign on for the ride, and in this case I was.

Since Jonathan Yardley, for one, found the narrator “a false note,” she still raises the question of what is to be gained by this manner of telling. Couldn’t McDermott simply have told it as a family story and shifted around to her heart’s content without–ostensibly–coming to rest anywhere? I had a number of thoughts about this. Part of the charm of Charming Billy is that it is an extraordinarily quiet story by the increasingly noisy standards of contemporary fiction–no incest, no murder, no spectacular car accident, kidnapping, etc. Even the difficulties of coping with an alcoholic are, by today’s standards, pretty tame concerns.The plot, such as it is, concerns things like fixing up a summer house on Long Island after World War II, or failing to get a promotion at Con Ed after years of loyal service, or wooing a girl when she comes into the shoe store with her father, to buy him another pair of shoes–these are pivotal moments for the characters, to be sure, but McDermott’s challenge is to make them equally significant for us. And I think that placing her narrator among these characters is her answer to that challenge. We may not see, when the book opens, why we should be interested in a large group of elderly funeral mourners recalling a dead man’s lost love, but when the daughter/narrator learns, on the way home from the funeral, that her father’s long-ago lie essentially invented that lost love, we certainly understand why she would be interested in that story. Her upstanding Catholic father! Why? And what led up to it? And what happened afterwards? This is her family, and through her they become our family. They become worthy of our time and attention.

I also think that McDermott is fascinated by storytelling, and family storytelling, and the way one’s own understanding of one’s family can change and change again over time. Placing her narrator within her story–within her family–allows her that layer of complexity as well. She is quasi-omnicient now, maybe, but she wasn’t always that way. For instance, when she remembers the confrontation between Billy and Dennis, a confrontation she has witnessed–it comes just after Billy has encountered his long-dead love, Eva, running a gas station in Ireland, and realized that Dennis lied to him–she shows us how completely the significance of the exchange eluded her. Its full significance eludes the reader as well, until many pages later.

A colleague of mine complained that McDermott’s narrator was too perfect, too compassionate and understanding, too much like God, dispensing punishment to the bad (death to Billy, the alcoholic, for example) and rewards to the good (read the book). All narrators are tremendously powerful, but certainly this sort of narrator–half in the story, half above it–puts those questions of power and hubris in bold relief. I felt exactly the opposite. I felt that one of McDermott’s many aims was to confer honor on the lives she described, and honor on the world that I think it’s safe to assume she herself came from. Not by putting that world above any other world–although I think it is fair to say that it is a very generous and forgiving novel–but simply by writing it into existence. And making a claim for a group of people who would generally never make such a claim for themselves: “What about me,” you feel most of them would say, “could possibly be of interest, could possibly belong in a book?”

McDermott believes they do belong in a book, and then takes her place among them (I know that she is not, technically speaking, the narrator, but I think that some blur among the narrator, daughter, and author is fair here). Stories are told one way in one generation, and another way in another generation, and now McDermott can tell the stories of both generations, combining an oral tradition with a self-consciously literary one. I also think that this novel–in almost every sense–rewards patience and close attention. These are qualities that one grows into over time (time being yet another major preoccupation of all three books), which would also argue for a live narrator rather than simply one of the immortal variety.

McDermott’s desire to portray people in a particular place and time was a concern I felt in all three novels. Among all three authors’ complicated agendas there was the desire to get this down, to recognize and record the textures and flavors of their particular worlds–almost anthropologically. In Cunningham’s The Hours, one gay man, a minor character, is described thus: “Little in the world is less mysterious than the disdain people often feel for Walter Hardy, who’s elected to turn forty-six in baseball caps and Nikes, who makes an obscene amount of money writing romance novels about love and loss among perfectly muscled young men, who can stay out all night dancing to house music, blissful and inexhaustible as a German shepherd retrieving a stick.” In Minot’s Evening, a description of the chatter of visitors by Ann Lord’s sick bed: “They’d had dinner at the Whites’, they were still not talking to the Brocaws, Peach Granger was visiting from Florida, she’d definitely had a lift, Ollie Granger had won the race with the Hallowells, they’d brought her a pillowcase from Kit Eastman’s store, Jared Brocaw punched out the starter at the golf course, there was a wonderful Wilsow Homer exhibit at the MFA they’d not been to yet.” And in the McDermott, when Jesus is mentioned in a conversation about AA, and mourners up and down the lunch table automatically bob their heads at the sound of his name.

I liked this aspect of the novels, that they were so self-consciously–almost defiantly–rooted in a particular socioeconomic patch, oddly in keeping with the political currents of the time, and yet attempting with equal determination to transcend the parochial.

Well, I’ve gone on too long, so I’ll stop. I don’t think you’re asked to pass judgment on Billy, except in the private sense. I’m very interested in this issue of romance and nostalgia, which, as you point out, is dealt with in an ambiguous way in both the Minot and the McDermott, and they may both be attempts to have one’s cake and eat it, too. It is interesting to consider how children figure into this. Billy has no children; the author cuts him a major break in this regard. And Ann is, I agree, a terrible mother, but we don’t really have to suffer along with her children, they are too shadowy. (My guess is that Minot’s book is an attempt at imaginative forgiveness–an attempt to understand what happened to a certain type of not particularly sympathetic woman in our parents’ generation.)

Yours, Alice