Charming Billy, by Alice McDermott
This is a perfectly good novel, or I assume it is — I ditched after maybe 75 pages.
The abandonment had nothing to do with the quality of writing. That was just dandy.
Here’s a nice paragraph, describing a group of Irish-Americans at a wake in a restaurant in the Bronx:
The selected desert was brought in: two scoops of vanilla ice cream in cold stainless steel bowls. Hands in laps to make the poor man’s job easier as he reached between their shoulders. Thank you.
That’s good, isn’t it? It’s well observed, it’s seems so right, the way the diners, on their best behavior given the sad occasion and the relative fanciness of the restaurant, would take pains not to make the waiter’s job any harder. I can imagine them hunching their shoulders, halting their conversation while he placed the desert on the table. And I can see those ice cream bowls — a universal fixture of the “bar and grill” restaurants that used to be so common around New York.
(Maybe restaurants across the country had those stainless steel bowls for ice cream — although Schrafft’s as I recall had sculpted glass bowls — but it strikes me as a “New York” detail and even if you could find those bowls anywhere in the U.S., it’s still a well-observed detail, true to the time and place of early ’80s NYC.)
If “Charming Billy” had stuck with observation like that, I might have read it through. Certainly the set piece that opens the novel established the writer’s bona fides and it could simply have continued in that vein, “A Death in the Family” retold for an Irish family in New York.
Instead, it tries to tell a complex story, corkscrewing through time, with a multigenerational, geometrically-complex backstory involving a shoe-store owner, his second wife, a beach house, etc. etc. etc. that is patently false, not terribly interesting, and just too complicated to keep track of.
So I bailed on the book.