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, self-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, flights 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: 0-670-83457-2
Page count: 304pp
Publisher: Viking
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1st, 1992


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