Very Old Bones, William Kennedy, Viking Press, New York, 1992
Recently, in reviewing an early William Kennedy Albany-cycle novel, “Ironweed” I mentioned that he was my kind of writer. I will let what I stated there stand on that score here. Here is what I said:
“William Kennedy is, at least in his Albany stories, my kind of writer. He writes about the trials and tribulations of the Irish diaspora as it penetrated the rough and tumble of American urban WASP-run society, for good or evil. I know these people, my people, their follies and foibles like the back of my hand. Check. Kennedy writes, as here with the main characters Fran Phelan and Helen Archer two down at the heels sorts, about that pervasive hold that Catholicism has even on its most debased sons and daughters, saint and sinner alike. I know those characteristics all too well. Check. He writes about that place in class society where the working class meets the lumpen-proletariat-the thieves, grifters, drifters and con men- the human dust. I know that place well, much better than I would ever let on. Check. He writes about the sorrows and dangers of the effects alcohol on working class families. I know that place too. Check. And so on. Oh, by the way, did I mention that he also, at some point, was an editor of some sort associated with the late Hunter S. Thompson down in Puerto Rico. I know that mad man’s work well. He remains something of a muse for me. Check.”
Although “Very Old Bones” is structurally part of Kennedy’s Albany-cycle of novels it is far more ambitious than the other novels in the cycle that I have read. Those previous efforts, led by the premier example, “Ironweed” set themselves the task of telling stories about particular characters in the Phelan clan and their neighbors in particular periods of the cycle that runs from approximately the 1880s to, as in the present novel, the late 1950s. Here we get a vast view of the clan, its trials and tribulations and its cursedness as a result of the insularity of the Irish diaspora, Albany style.
I am, frankly, ambitious about the success of this endeavor. While it is very good to have a summing up of the history of the Phelan clan, it struggle for "lace curtain" respectablity, and its remarkable stretch of characters from the cursed Malachi generation through to Fran (of “Ironweed”), and here his brother Peter as well, and on to Orton, the narrator’s generation (and Billy Phelan’s) there is almost too much of this and it gets in the way of the plot line here, basically the current survivors trying to cope with the traumas brought on by those previous generations. Conversely, I ran through the book at breakneck speed. Why? Change the names and a few of the incidentals, and a few f the specific pathologies, and this could have been the story of my Irish-derived family in that other diaspora enclave, Boston. Hence the ambiguity. Moreover, there is just a little too much of that “magical realism” in the plot that was all the rage in the 1990s in telling the sub-stories here and then expecting us the sober, no nonsense reader to suspend our disbelieve. Is this effort as good as "Ironweed"? No, that is the standard by which to judge a Kennedy work and still the number one contender from this reviewer's vantage point.