Books: Billy's Ashes

A shrewd, elegiac novel about a lifelong drunk

Billy Lynch, a lovely, funny man (a hopeless, lifelong drunk), is dead in middle age. His funeral is just over, and his friends and family have gathered at a quiet bar in the Bronx to forgive his ghost and congratulate his widow. So Alice McDermott sets down at the outset of Charming Billy (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 280 pages; $22), a rueful shrug of a novel whose strong, shrewd opening pages should be taught in college writing classes.

The story is all there, a clear-eyed sketch of lower-middle-class Irish-American life, in a dozen paragraphs of bar conversation. "He had the sweetest...

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