The charming alcoholic, Billy, has been found unconscious, on a street in his home neighborhood of Queens, New York City. His cousin and lifelong friend, Dennis, must identify his body after he dies, and help his widow Maeve through the funeral and its aftermath--just as he has often helped Maeve to carry the stuporous Billy to bed. Billy's funeral is the occasion for the reminiscences about him by his friends and family that forms this novel's story. These reminiscences reveal the web of community and generational continuity that is at the narrative's core.

A central tragedy in Billy's life has often been invoked by his friends to account for his alcoholism. Recently back from the second World War, Billy had met the Irish girl, Eva, and fallen in love with her. When she returned to Ireland he was determined to bring her back, along with her family, so that they could be married. But, as the story goes, Eva died and Billy, heartbroken, never really recovered. We learn early on, however, that Eva's death was fabricated by Dennis, who could not bear to reveal to Billy and to the rest of the family that Eva had married an Irish beau and used the money that Billy had been sending her to set her new husband up in business.

Even though Billy eventually learns that Dennis has lied to him, their friendship is undiminished. Neither Billy nor Dennis enlighten anyone else with the truth, until Dennis tells his daughter, following Billy's funeral. It is as if the truth would force Dennis to confront the inexplicable--that a man so loved by all destroyed himself for no apparent reason, was unable to accept all efforts to help him, unable to help himself, and, in effect, abandoned and rejected those who cared for him. But the novel concludes with an affirmation of trust, faith (religious and secular), friendship, and family ties and with an acknowledgment that the stories we tell and believe may be more important than what actually happens to us.


The story of Billy's life and the interwoven lives of his family and friends is told through the eyes of Dennis, but is narrated by Dennis's daughter, who is telling the story to her husband. This technique emphasizes the interconnectedness of the protagonists and the power of the relationships depicted. While alcoholism and its prevalence in some Irish American families is a recurrent theme, alcoholism is transcended in the novel by the force of human connections and personalities.

A debate begins at Billy's funeral--is alcoholism a disease to which one is genetically predisposed, or is this too simple, too fatalistic, too dismissive of individual agency and worth? As one of the mourners protests, "But give him some credit for feeling, for having a hand in his own fate. Don't say it was a disease that blindsided him and wiped out everything that he was." (23) This paradox--that agency is necessary for human dignity, but that it implies responsibility to oneself and others and therefore an acceptance of "blame"--cannot be resolved, the novel seems to be saying. And even though (chronic) disease or disability may contribute characteristics that cannot readily be dissociated from the person, these characteristics never define personhood.

It is worth mentioning also that the milieu of middle-class New York City Irish Catholics during the era beginning with World War II and continuing up to the present is well evoked. It is part of the value of the novel that it treats both global and local issues with such concern and respect.


First published in 1998 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. This novel won the National Book Award.


Random House: Dell, Delta

Place Published

New York

Page Count