In McDermott’s story, each family member reacts numbly to the father and resists accepting the change, mirroring the father’s behavior as he refuses to see a doctor or accept his inevitable death. McDermott, an outspoken Catholic, explained that she drew remarkable parallels between the story and the current status of the Catholic Church, also experiencing significant suffering and resisting a change of ritual.
“I never begin my writing with the intention of providing a lesson, but any novel, play, poem or story can be formed into a parable with unintended messages,” McDermott said.
She continued the metaphor by explaining the father’s symbolism of the current institutional Church — aging, loving, stubborn, damaged, ritualistic and trapped with pain. The Church cannot win the current argument by sustaining tradition, and yet it still refuses to change the rituals of priesthood, she said.
McDermott depicted the mother as a pragmatic character who insisted on changing her husband through medical treatment, but nonetheless endured his suffering out of love and obedience.
McDermott was on the faculty of the Sewannee Writers' Conference the year I attended, and while she was obviously a very nice lady, her readings of her closely detailed "evocative"prose were deadly - one a piece she'd written for the NYTimes magazine on the subject of "heat" which detailed - and I mean detailed a scene of her father putting a box fan in her room when she was a child. The second was an excerpt from Charming Billy in which, as I recall, all the characters were wandering around the house, either before or after Billy's funeral, studying the wallpaper and the flowers on the hall table, wondering where Billy was, thinking they'd glimpsed him around the corner, and so on, an experience by the end of which I and those I was sitting with wanted to just stand up and scream, "HE'S DEAD, REMEMBER???!!"
Obviously, not my cup 'o tea.