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billy dead

"An extraordinary novel. . . .
Lisa Reardon has made one of the most powerful debuts in recent American fiction."
~ The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

the skinny

as described / reviewed by Marianne Painter for

So, you find out one day that your brother has just been killed, brutally murdered in fact, by someone who seemed to take calm delight in watching him die slowly, agonizingly. The thing is, you can think of dozens of people who wished Billy harm, and a few who very well might have done it, including members of your own family.

Such is the situation of Ray Johnson, the narrator of Lisa Reardon's first novel, Billy Dead, as we begin a gut-wrenching trip into the past of an American family that's about as unappetizing as you will find. A relatively decent, tender man who's spent much of his life trying to keep out of harm's way, Ray has managed to cobble together a pretty good existence of steady job and thoughtful, intelligent girlfriend, Sally... until now.  

As he ranges around town in a surreal haze in the days following Billy's murder, meeting up with ghosts from the past, and interacting with various and sundry family members (including a mother who flirts with an old boyfriend in sight of her son's coffin), Ray realizes just how much he remains shackled to a past chock full of domestic abuse, alcoholism, incest, and just plain meanness.

While Billy's death seems a just, but unavoidable, conclusion to a nasty existence--"Somebody took that thing full of mean and made it nothing at all"--maybe he was the lucky one. For Ray, the killing pulls into sharp relief the hell on earth that is his when he realizes his only life passion is forbidden.

In a narrative that explores in terrifying detail the violent nature of Jean and Ray's past and the poignant truth of their relationship, Reardon creates a skillful and credible tale. This is a hard, in-your-face kind of book that takes you for a disturbing ride, and finally asks you to reexamine your notions of what is and what is not right when it comes to affairs of the heart.

booklist starred review

BILLY DEAD named one of BOOKLIST'S “20 Notable 1st Novels of 1998”
"Startling, alarming, altogether original, and one of the more challenging novels of recent memory. Reardon’s debut novel is narrated by Ray Johnson, younger brother of the recently murdered Billy and middle child of perhaps the sickest family in Michigan. Ray, and Reardon, cast no aspersions though, as Ray sleepily reveals the layers of pain that go way beyond the self-perpetuating spirals of “abuse.” As the police and Ray try to find Billy’s killer, the covers are lifted on the not-so-secret secrets of the Johnson clan. In the tangled core of the story is Ray’s love for, and love affair with, his younger sister, Jean. Reardon dares to challenge the very nature of sin as she suggests that incest can have color and layers; indeed, she creates between Ray and Jean a terribly beautiful love story. Reardon writes in a masterful, an artfully quiet, and a most unfabulous way, which has the effect of making this tale seem acceptable. If this one doesn’t cause a buzz, then our collective consciousness is more damaged than we thought." (Reviewed September 1, 1998)— David Cline 

praise for BILLY DEAD

Barry Award Finalist
Booklist Starred Review
Booklist’s “20 Notable 1st Novels of 1998”

"A brave, heart-wrenching debut.
I couldn't look away."

"Reardon owes something to Faulkner; like him,
she can summon up the menace of the past,
rustling in the dark." 

"Moving, heartbreaking,
and always vividly told."

"A compelling work, reminiscent of both Dorothy Allison and Carolyn Chute, that...finds a measure of dignity and love in people raised in a world where all the rules are broken on a daily basis."

"Hawke also is looking to get a pet project, "Billy Dead," off the ground. 'It's based on the novel by Lisa Reardon. It's a very dark, weird little family drama,' he said. 'I've been trying to get the movie made for years' "

"Reardon's wild, mesmerizing first novel is not for the faint of heart. . . . Billy Dead [is] about the importance of knowing what--or who--lies at the root of your being."

PHOTO CREDITS | Top of Page . Lisa Reardon | Production Photo . Creative Commons