VERY OLD BONES by William Kennedy


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Kennedy's latest installment in the Albany cycle (Billy Phelan's Greatest Game, Ironweed) continues the saga of the Phelan family in a familiar mix of surreal flourishes and gritty naturalism. Humor leavens the mix, but this one is still a grab-bag--a family chronicle that gets weighed down with too many attempts to sum up or recapitulate. It's written as a mock-memoir by Orson Purcell, ""a bit of a magician,"" who is the bastard son of Peter Phelan, older brother of Francis (Ironweed). Orson is attempting to put the humpty-dumpty of familial life together again during a climactic family gathering, in 1958, by chronicling his own life, his father's, and three past generations. Peter, a painter, returns to Albany (from a long exile in Greenwich Village) in 1954, and stays to document the family's history in paint and to care for brother Tommy, a sort of ""holy moron."" The cast here is large and various: highlights include Francis, who returns in 1934 to attend a family funeral for matriarch Kathryn and nearly commits suicide, and Orson's own colorful interlude in Germany during the Korean War, where he meets Giselle (""I had never been more excited by a woman's body..."") and becomes a cardsharp. While some of this is thumbnail-thin, covering too much ground, Orson's narrative is finally a meditation on art, focused on father Peter, whose artistic cycle includes guilt, remorse, delight with remorse, serf-destruction, boredom, and the resumption of art--""art again being the doorway into the emotional life...."" Orson's family saga, then, narrates and enlarges the pictorial one of his father: Kennedy's achievement is to place all of this into a comic structure that is, in the end, elegiac and celebratory. Tough-guy dialogue, hardheaded realism, Sights of prose--Kennedy's trademarks are here, but this one has the feel of a code: ""...we are never without our overcoats, however lice-ridden, of our ancestors.

Pub Date: April 30th, 1992
ISBN: 0140138986
Page count: 304pp
Publisher: Viking