Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Charming Billy

What is the power of a lie? What lies do we tell ourselves to get by? What lies do we tell others because we believe they cannot bear the truth? Or what lies do we let others believe because we have and they have believed them so long that no one really knows the truth any longer? Or believes it matters? How does a lie take on a life of its own? In Alice McDermott's haunting book, Charming Billy, Billy's adult life is based on a lie told him by his best friend. A lie that was told him because it was feared he could not bear the truth. Then, as Billy's life spiraled out of control into alcoholism, his friends and family conspired together with Billy in a complicated web of other lies. The one big lie beget other lies. The story of Charming Billy (there is a lie), opens at the repast after his funeral where family and friends have gathered to pay respects and tell the lies that have helped them cope with Billy's life - and had helped him cope for some 60 years of living. It is not that Billy was a bad person. On the contrary, he was hailed as a good person, someone who would give you the shirt off his back. Someone who courageously lived in the face of the great grief of his life. Someone who denied himself, took up his cross and obediently adhered to his church obligations and kept his marriage vows. His was an unhappy life, everyone agreed, but no one criticized him for that. They understood. But, what did they understand? It was not the truth. It was the tangled web of lies that they used to make sense of his life (and so did he). They understood the truth they had made up out of their lies. Not that they were bad people either, just people trying to understand, trying to be helpful, using everyday, ordinary lies to survive life. It's what we do. In Charming Billy, we see how tragic even the most simple, most helpful, lie can be and we are left to wonder how the truth could have set Billy free.