Un-Charming Billy

Another stunning passage from Charming Billy, by Alice McDermott:

“He (Dennis) had learned at an early age to be careful about what he brought his mother–odd paintings or dreams, fanciful plans–not because she had no interest in him (he was her only child and she was in her way an adoring mother), but because in an instant, he knew, she could show him that the painting was unintelligible, the dream nonsense, the plans intemperate or illogical, or fatally incomplete. She would not do so cruelly or blindly or with any sense of mean-spiritedness, but rather in the same careful and loving way another mother might tell a child that the aspirin was not candy and the laundry bleach not fruit punch.

Growing up, Dennis knew that whenever his father left the kitchen table or walked out of the room, he had only to glance at his mother to learn that whatever story the man had just told them was a lie, an exaggeration, a rehearsal for or a rehash of a story he would tell or had told someone else–the passengers in his car or the men in the saloon or whoever happened to be living in their parlor. Dennis had only to glance at his mother to learn that the man, for all the people in New York City who worshipped him, was flawed, difficult, full of too many other people’s lives and not enough of their own, of her own.”

This mother is a fascinating character, much richer than whatever effects her words and actions had on her son. A little later, the narrator tries to explore some of this mother’s balancing act between her loyalties; between her desires and the probabilities of life: “Loyalty, to blood or to water, being a complicated thing for his mother…”

“…she had a considered opinion about what the workaday world could do to you, and it wasn’t a very high opinion, either, despite her Protestant blood.

In part, she objected to the monotony of nine-to-five, the tedium, the hours and days you ended up wishing away, swinging from one Saturday morning to another like a monkey at the zoo.”

And then, this wonderful, devastating, long sentence:

“In part, it was the anonymity: Forget what dreams you’d dreamt the night before, forget the adoring eye that beheld you over breakfast, or even the grief that had been wringing out your soul all night long, because the way she saw it, once you boarded the subway or the bus or joined the crawling stream of automobiles or found your space in the revolving door, the elevator, behind the desk or the counter or the machine, you became what you really were–you became, when you got right down to it, what you really were: one of the so many million, just one more.”


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