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Here lies Billy Fisher
Billy Liar - Keith Waterhouse
Member Name: TeeCee
Billy Liar - Keith Waterhouse
Date: 25/07/01, updated on 25/07/01 (2229 review reads)
Advantages: Funny, easy reading
Disadvantages: Slightly dated
The 1963 film Billy Liar, starring Tom Courtenay, has long been one of my favourites. There was also a TV series in the seventies of which I have fond memories. Yet for some reason I've never got round to reading the original novel. My loss.
Billy Fisher is a teenager from a dull working class family in Stradhoughton, a dull working class Northern town. He lives with his family and works as a clerk in the local undertakers. Like many people, he finds solace in fantasy and escapes from his dreary life in to daydreams. Billy's daydreams are on a rather grander scale than most and he has developed a whole country called Ambrosia. In Ambrosia he can - depending on his mood - be the world's greatest lover, single-handedly save the country from invasion or have his entire family beheaded.
Unfortunately Billy is unable to keep his imagination in check. He lies almost instinctively, making up stories and presenting them as fact. He's lied about so much for so long that he is very good at it.
He is engaged to two girls simultaneously, neither of whom he actually likes, and contrives to share one engagement ring between them. He has also told each of them different stories about his family, something he regrets when one of them is invited to tea. Then there is Liz, the girl he really cares for and to whom he is not engaged. Liz is an independent young woman who escaped from the town's clutches years ago and now comes and goes as she sees fit.
Billy's one genuine ambition is to become a comedy scriptwriter. He sends some gags to Danny Boon, an established comic. Boon writes back saying that he can use some of them and will buy them. Billy immediately exaggerates the significance of this and quickly comes to believe that Boon has offered him a job in London.
Convinced that he has a show business job waiting in London, Billy plans to leave town. He resigns from his job and this precipitates the slow, agonising
collapse of the house of cards he has built with his lies. The return of Liz with her freewheeling life-style makes things worse, then everything is put in to perspective by a family problem. Billy has to decide between committing to Liz, running away to London or staying with his family and facing his problems.
Billy Liar is a classic example of "bitter sweet comedy": funny without being laugh-out-loud and touching without being saccharine. It's a light, easy read and at fewer than two hundred pages it won't take you long to finish.
Given that this was first published way back in 1959, you'd expect it to be dated. In fact, it has lasted very well. Yes, there are cultural references that anchor it in time, especially sexual mores. The England of Billy Liar no longer exists, yet the same human problems remain. The basic themes and story of Billy Liar are still relevant.
It's all about adolescence, rebellion and - just possibly - growing up.