It’s true. For years I used it to keep the wind from slamming shut a particularly annoying door. Why this book? Because it was there: the first in a use-every-last-inch row of dusty volumes precariously atilt atop a chock-full bookcase, like tipsy sailors in a grog line. Without a friendly bookend to lean on, pushed by its unruly mates from behind, it would regularly fall flat on its face, proving Tolstoy’s theory of leadership and attracting my attention — for all the wrong reasons.
I gave it no respect. Crunch! Ouch! I didn’t even buy it, let alone read it — my wife did all that. But I couldn’t remember my wife having ever talked about it, or insisted I read it, as she often will. It was a thin wisp of a thing: 243 pages. Granted, it did say “National Bestseller” on the cover, in modest pale gray print (appropriately, as it turned out, because it is a modestly written book: it whispers rather than shouts). And granted also, it bore the embossed gold seal of a “National Book Award Winner.” Maybe it was that bit of literary bling, plus a few odd references to it I’d heard in fiction circles over the years, that gradually convinced me that, okay, someday I’m going to read this book. And so I did.
So why do I call it ‘a sacred text’? Or is that just another of my classical-metaphor-loving overstatements of the case, to which I tend? I hope not, because I have in mind something quite specific. Let’s eliminate first what I don’t mean: I don’t mean to put Charming Billy in the same category as the Bible, the Quran, or other scriptural texts held sacred by people of faith — though it does have something in common with them in how seriously it takes the ultimate questions of life, death, faith, despair, and redemption. Nor do I mean that it’s a modern-day ‘classic’ or simply a book that I really, really love. No, my definition of a sacred text is this: a work of fiction that explodes the conventional, comfortable, prêt-a-porter lies we human beings cover ourselves in like a suit of armor in order to spare ourselves the pain of looking life’s horrors in the face. The way the author does this, whether it’s Alice McDermott in Charming Billy, or Leo Tolstoy in The Death of Ivan Ilyich, or Miguel de Unamuno in San Manuel the Good, A Martyr, is by creating a character who is either born with (Billy Lynch) or develops under duress (Ivan Illych or Father Manuel, a village priest in Spain) the visionary power to see those lies for the craven evasions they are, and then figure out how to live (or die) in their terrifying new circumstances.
I suppose it’s no surprise that all three of these title characters become, in their own way, heroes: Ivan Ilyich stops fearing his own imminent death by learning to put the sufferings of others before his own; Father Manuel, who has lost his faith in God, decides to hide his unbelief from his parishioners so their faith will be preserved; and Billy Lynch slowly kills himself with drink in order to maintain his belief in God and the essential beauty of the world. Say what? Heroics by drink? Come again?
It’s part of Alice McDermott’s magic that she creates a hero so complex, but at the same time so simple; so self-destructive, but so life-affirming to others; so literally staggering that he needs to be carried to bed at night by his wife and best friend, but also so figuratively staggering under the crushing demands of loyalty to his dreams, to his God and to the dead, that, though she in no way hides the ugliness of alcoholism, Billy’s alcoholism becomes part and parcel of his beauty. It’s a forty-year-long act of self-sacrifice — self-immolation even — and transcendence. The barroom becomes Billy’s cathedral, and booze his holy Eucharist. Part of what allows Ms. McDermott to ‘get away with this’ highly unorthodox heroism is the brutally cruel situation she’s created for him: rather than spell it out, let’s just say that it involves an unfaithful lover, and a well-intentioned, casual, but catastrophic lie told to him by his cousin and best friend Dennis. It will be the death of Billy.
What makes the reading of Charming Billy and the other texts I’ve mentioned a ‘sacred’ experience for this reader, is that watching these characters writhe and struggle and triumph or fail, or both at once, under this authorial stripping away of the easy lies their characters (and we) unconsciously live by (‘Death isn’t so horrible,’ ‘Life goes on,’ ‘I won’t get sick,’ ‘It’ll all work out,’– Their number is legion; supply your own), is, in some writ-small, vicarious way, like being present at, or even participating in, an event or ceremony of life-and-death importance: high-risk, open heart surgery, for example, in our culture; or, if we had been born Aztecs, a human sacrifice. These books inspire reverence and awe. If you’re not a writer, they may well inspire you to become one; and if you are a writer, they make you question whether your own efforts are nothing but evasion and sideshow. They probe your wounds, and press on the splinters that have been lodged under scar tissue so long that you’d thought they’d stopped hurting.
But now that doorstop that came to life and probed my wounds lies lifeless beside me on the desk. I have categorized it — a sure sign of objectification. It will soon re-join its mates in that unsteadily squatting row atop the bookcase. I’m already beginning to forget the details. In a few months most of them will be gone. “It was a great book,” I’ll say, “a sacred text, in fact,” as that annoying door slams shut and I look around for a doorstop.