Picks and Pans Review: Very Old Bones
by William Kennedy
Allusions to Joyce fill this sprawling (confusing), colorful (overwritten), mythic (contrived), vigorous (capricious) novel. It is often reminiscent, too, of epics by Garcia Marquez, Fuentes, Allende and Vargas Llosa. But the author of Ironweed, Legs and Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game seems unaware that Albany, N.Y., his familiar setting, hardly compares with Ireland, Mexico, Peru or Chile for anthropological or archaeological riches. Nor does Kennedy’s fictional family, the Phelans, embody profound human experience as he seems to think.
The 292-page saga centers on Peter Phelan, a moderately successful painter, and his illegitimate novelist son, Orson. Orson narrates, devoting much of his attention to his wife, Giselle, whom he meets in Germany in the ’50s while serving in the Army. Orson also devotes much time to an exegesis of his father’s paintings. Despite a Phelan family tree in the frontispiece, it is still hard to keep all the characters straight.
Nor is Kennedy stingy with his prose, never using one phrase where a dozen will do. In fact, the novel itself comes to resemble a particularly fantastic part of the Phelan family history. Considering it, Peter detects “the presence of a particular kind of thought, a superstitious atmosphere aswirl with those almost visible demons and long-forgotten abstractions of evil—votive bats and sacrificial hags, burning flesh and the bones of tortured babies—the dregs of putrefied religion, the fetid remains of a psychotic social order, these inheritances so tortuous to his imagination that he had to paint them to be rid of them.”
While Kennedy’s characters obsess about emotional hollowness (the book is rife with various uses of the word “hollow”), it is no hollow vessel. On the contrary, it is a cup that runneth over—runneth all over the place, in fact. (Viking, $22)