June 24, 1996 12:00 PM

by William Kennedy

The sixth novel in Kennedy’s ambitious Albany Cycle, Corsage begins with a tawdry murder-suicide that gets tagged as the Love Nest Killings of 1908. Kennedy then flashes back to 1885 to spin a troubling tale of a young man who learns that social climbing comes at a dear price.

From humble Irish roots, Edward Daugherty, an ambitious young playwright Kennedy first introduced in Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game (1978), rises through the social ranks. Sadly, that success is mocked by the betrayals and tragedies that befall him and his stunning wife, Katrina, whose eerie fixation with death ultimately consumes her.

Few human frailties escape Kennedy’s unforgiving scrutiny. Love, loyalty, genius, envy, madness—all are examined like viruses under a microscope, and virtually nothing is as it seems. Even Kennedy’s text switches suddenly to stage dialogue as he reveals the cruel motives behind the killings. Corsage is first-rate material from the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Ironweed, but for all its virtues this slender (209 pages) volume fails to capitalize on its epic potential. (Viking, $23.95)

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