In the precise, pretty first pages of Alice McDermott’s Charming Billy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; $21), friends and family at the protagonist’s wake consider his life from the ends of a long banquet table – a terrible failure, they whisper, what a shame. The lyrically tender novel explores the key events in Billy’s downward plunge – the job and house and girl he couldn’t get, the drinking habit, the expectations for his own life that diminished to a speck. To add the sense of a myth in the making, McDermott chooses a narrator who barely knew the man and is simply relating tales she heard and making up the rest. And though she’s expert at dispensing gloomy, dismaying wisdom about life, she often underimagines Billy: Someone would “turn to see Billy bobbing through the traffic, heading over. ‘How are you?’ ‘How’s things?’ Shaking hands and slapping their fresh newspapers on each other’s back. ‘Good to see you.’” Not exactly a fireside anecdote for the grandkids.