More on the Frayed Phelan Family

IN "Very Old Bones," the latest addition to his so-called "Albany cycle" of novels set in the somber, seldom-celebrated state capital of New York, William Kennedy continues to explore the natural history of the disaster-prone Phelan family.

The family first emigrated from Ireland in the 1820s to work on the Erie Canal, and various members went on to prosper and fail, succeed and suffer, run away and return, but - one way or another - endure.

Kennedy's Albany is a down-at-the-heel sort of city that has seen better days - not that those better days were all that special either.

But to the characters who have grown up there, it is home, even when they leave it. It's a world of shabby neighborhoods clinging to the last vestiges of former respectability, of a dimming downtown night life of aging gamblers, cardsharps, bookies, drunks, and drifters.

Like his own characters (and like a good many other authors), Kennedy has not had an easy time of it. He went through a period when publishers stopped publishing his books, a situation which outraged admirers like Saul Bellow, who continued to urge his claims.

With "Ironweed," his Pulitzer Prize-winning Albany novel about Francis Phelan - ex-baseball player turned tramp - Kennedy finally "arrived" on the American literary scene: another of the postwar, postmodernist generation of tough-guy American realists who had imbibed a stiff dose of the Hemingway macho creed mixed in with the last dregs of the stylistic legacy of Joyce.

"Very Old Bones" is an ambitious novel that promises more than it delivers. It brings together the characters introduced in previous books and makes a great effort to explain the vagaries of Phelan family history by means of a lurid, melodramatic crime, the full horror of which is revealed in the book's final section. This long-buried crime has the status of a myth: It seems meant to serve as the Phelan family equivalent of a crime that becomes a family curse, like Agamemnon's sacrifice of Iphigenia.

Although Kennedy's use of this device is effective, weird, and strangely convincing, most of the rest of the novel leading up to the point of revelation is thin and mechanical.

The central players in "Very Old Bones" are Peter Phelan, a gifted painter who unlocks the grip of the family past by recreating and exorcising it through a series of harrowing paintings, and Peter's unacknowledged illegitimate son, Orson Purcell, an unstable young man with literary leanings and a tendency to commit petty crimes, who is the novel's chief narrator.

Orson introduces us to the Phelan household in a heavy-handed manner all too typical of his narrative style:

"... two parlors, a dining room, and seven bedrooms, those bedrooms an anticipatory act of notable faith and irony, for, after several years of marriage, Kathryn [Phelan] began behaving like an all-but-frigid woman. In spite of this, the pair filled the bedrooms with four sons and three daughters, the seven coming to represent, in my mind, Michael Phelan's warm-blooded perseverance in the embrace of ice."

Departures from the obvious take the form of still more embarrassing flights of crude oxymoron and neo-Joycean hyperbole, like Peter's apostrophe to his seedy yet glamorous itinerant brother:

"Wondrous drunkenness lurks in your future. You will recover from the awfulness of your finality and you will go on to the heights of the degraded imagination, always conjuring yet another rung on which to hoist yourself to new depths.

"Francis, in your suite of mice and dun, in the majority of your umberness, in the psychotic melancholy of your spirit, I salute you as my brother in the death of our history."

Forays back in time to various turning points of the family history are interwoven with Orson's account of his own crazy shenanigans while he was stationed in postwar Germany, where he first meets his future wife, Giselle, doing an impromptu striptease at a Christmas party.

Orson's obsessive passion for Giselle is watered-down Norman Mailer, with the same touch of Mailerish irony that allows the narrator to wallow in his dementia while seeming to distance himself from it.

The Phelan men tend to suspect their women of sexual betrayal. Just as Peter refuses for a long time to acknowledge Orson as his son, so Orson has his doubts about the paternity of the child Giselle is carrying.

The men have been bullied by a sexually repressive mother (Kathryn) and a still more repressive sister, Sarah, who takes over her mother's role when the latter dies.

Sarah's regime even includes physical violence against her simple-minded, 63-year-old brother, Tommy, whom she beats with a ruler for minor misbehavior.

The entire family becomes alienated and scattered across the country.

When the family gathers for Sarah's funeral, we finally learn of the terrible crime that turned Kathryn into the "all-but-frigid" monument to self-denial she became. Female repressiveness and frigidity are shown to have their roots in the paranoid suspiciousness of violent and hysterical men.

The women and men become trapped in a vicious circle - the pattern of Phelan family history - until they gain the insight - here, through Peter Phelan's cathartic paintings - to understand themselves.

Like its predecessors, Kennedy's latest Albany novel will doubtless find its admirers.

But watching the author put these stereotyped characters through their paces was more than enough to make this reviewer squirm at the self-important, pseudo-aesthetic posturing of it all.

There is some power in the parts that take us back into the family history, although the parts about Orson's escapades dilute the effect.

And, there is something disconcerting, not to say depressing, about reading a novel studded with references to the wonderful feats performed by the artistic imagination, when the novel in question offers more talk about creation than outstanding instances of it.

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