40 of 42 people found the following review helpful
A Boy Hiding in Disguises
, 7 May 2004
This review is from: Billy Liar (Mass Market Paperback)
Still fresh after 45 years, Waterhouse's novel about a compulsive liar who can't handle reality is funny, sweet, and heartbreakingly sad. Set at the tail end of 1950s, the story is told by Billy Fisher, who lives with his parents in the fictional Yorkshire town of Stradhoughton. Billy can't cope with his tedious clerking job at a local funeral parlor, living at home, or really anything about his life, and so, spends a great deal of time escaping into fantasy world in his head called Ambrosia. When he's not imagining life as prime minister of his make-believe country, he's spinning mostly purposeless lies to almost everyone he meets. Sometimes he's lying to cover up real misdeeds, such as his smalltime embezzling, other times, his lies are completely pointless, such as telling a friend's mother about his fictional sister.
At first, his carefree, devil-may-care insouciance is amusing and the reader is drawn into Billy's bizarre self-vision as lively raconteur and comic wit. However, as the story progresses, he becomes a more troublesome figure. He's engaged to two different girls, and apparently in love with a third. More problematically, he has no emotional connection to realityóevery episode in his life takes on the aspect of a sketch or scene in which he struggles to determine what role to play, what accent to adopt, or what pose to strike. It becomes heartbreaking to witness Billy's belief that he's smarter than everyone around him and destined for great things, when everyone else can see right through his poses and tired routines. (It'd be interesting to know what a psychiatrist's diagnosis of Billy would be.) As the lies pile up, Billy finds himself painted into a corner from which only drastic action will free him. His only avenue of escape is to actually pursue his longstanding claim of a job offer in London writing scripts for a standup comic. The reader is torn between wanting Billy to stay and face up to his misdeeds, and wanting him to get on that train to the Big Smoke and realize his dreams. Of course, the outcome is inevitable.
Waterhouse grew up in Leeds, and like Billy, worked as a clerk in an undertakers. The prose is liberally sprinkled with Yorkshire dialect, and does a brilliant job of capturing the small town atmosphere, from the grubby disco, to the local cafe, and claustrophobic house. The book was turned into a play the year after publication and into an excellent film several years later, a TV miniseries in the early 1970s, and an insipid American TV series called Billy. A sequel called Billy Liar on The Moon appeared in 1977, and more recently there are allegedly plans for an American feature film remake, although I'm not sure who thought that would be a good idea..
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