Alice McDermott cannot be trusted: Even though her 1992 novel At Weddings and Wakes was showered with critical hosannas, the 1987 National Book Award nominee claimed she was through telling stories about contemporary Irish-Americans. She had done enough literary explorations of her ethnicity, she thought; it was time for something new. But feeling an influx of ideas for a fourth novel, McDermott just couldn’t resist; the story of “lovable drunk” Billy Lyncha smilin’, hard-drinkin’ Irish-Americanjust had to be told.
Charming Billy is set in motion by the main character’s unrequited teenage love for Mary, an incandescent beauty. When she leaves the States to return to Ireland, Billy begins to drink; when reports of her death soon make it back to America, Billy drinks even more. What follow are the details of Billy’s soggy life, his tragic death, and the twist that could have spared him lifelong heartache.
The critics are again slobbering over McDermott’s work (though the author pays them no mind: “You really can’t listen to the critics. If you take good reviews really seriously, you have to take bad reviews really seriously”). The Washington Post’s Jonathan Yardley said there “is much to be learned from it,” which is a telling turn of phrase in light of McDermott’s day job. After teaching literature and writing at universities in California, Virginia, and New Hampshire, two years ago McDermott was seduced by Johns Hopkins into joining in-house noteworthies Stephen Dixon and John Barth at one of the nation’s most prestigious writer maturation programs.
McDermott feels as strongly about her students as she does about her work and heartily defends her current crop of young writers and the instruction they receive. “I don’t really believe that writing programs are molding writers the way some critics believe,” explains the fortysomething McDermott, who lives in Bethesda with her husband and their three children. “Students come to Hopkins with a good sense of what they want to write about. Programs, in general, give developing writers a place to go away and write, to be around people who are pursuing the same thing. Professional writers are there to get the best out of every student, help them get at it the best they can. I’ve never seen a story that didn’t have the seeds of excellence in it. Sometimes the writer doesn’t see the things developing in the work, and that’s what another eye can do for you.” Sean Daly
McDermott reads Feb. 18 at 7 p.m. at Politics and Prose and Feb. 19 at 7:30 p.m. at Barnes & Noble in Bethesda.