July 04, 1988 12:00 PM

by William Kennedy

It’s not a romance, though it contains a beautifully framed story of a teenage boy, Daniel Quinn, who saves 12-year-old Maud Fallon from drowning in 1849 and falls in love with her, totally, unreasonably and happily, for life. It’s not a comic epic either, though its last chapter includes-a classic scene in which the notorious 19th-century erotic dancer Magdalena Colón decides she is going to die on her 55th birthday. She invites most of Saratoga, N.Y., to her estate for a birthday party-wake to be “held while she was still alive and able to enjoy both sides of existence at the same time.” Guests file by, saying such things as “Have a good time in heaven, Magdalena.” Nor is this a historical novel, though Kennedy, author of the history O Albany! as well as the fictional trilogy set in the same city—Legs, Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game and Ironweed—weaves in a little lore about the New York capital. What Kennedy seems to have created, rather, is a glorious fabrication devoted to the principle that few things are so satisfying as paying attention to what’s going on around you. Kennedy usually writes from the viewpoint of Quinn (though not always, there being few rules in this novel). An orphan, he is befriended by Magdalena, who is brought back to life by Quinn’s boatman master, John the Brawn, in a scene that is marvelously funny for those who don’t mind a little necrophilia. Magdalena is also Maud’s aunt. As Quinn grows up to be a reporter and war correspondent, he courts Maud, while she dabbles in séances, risqué dancing and flirting with Daniel. John the Brawn becomes a bare-knuckle fighter, then quits because, he says, “No sensible woman wants a man whose nose is twice as wide as itself.” Among the other vividly drawn characters are Joshua, an escaped slave of great courage and dignity, and Peaches Plum, a juvenile delinquent when Quinn meets him, then an Army deserter during the war. Kennedy writes with an exacting sense of tone and humor, with passionate attention to words. He also maintains the fragile balance between Quinn’s detachment and his frequent, always accidental connections with life. Says Quinn, about the execution of Peaches and four other deserters, “All that pomp and panoply in service of five more corpses. It’s a question, I’ll tell you. But that’s all that’s left in me—a kind of fatal quizzicality, you might call it. I hope my sharing it with you has been of some value.” (Viking, $18.95)

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