Literary success came late to William Kennedy. Published only after his former teacher Saul Bellow intervened with Viking, Kennedy’s Ironweed — the third in the ex-newspaperman’s ”Albany cycle” of novels — went on to become a literary sensation, accumulating rhapsodic reviews and earning its author both a 1983 Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. The myth-inflected saga of three days in the life of Francis Aloysius Phelan — a hard-drinking Irish-Catholic surviving on Albany’s skid row during the depths of the Depression — drew favorable comparison to writers as different as James T. Farrell, William Faulkner, and James Joyce.
A sequel of sorts, Very Old Bones deals with some of the same events, characters, and themes from the quite different perspective of Francis Phelan’s nephew, Orson Purcell — putative bastard, cuckold, womanizer, card sharp, memoirist, theoretician of the arts, and a prodigious boozer. For a newcomer to Kennedy’s work, sorting out who’s who among the six Phelan siblings and their offspring can be confusing. But the geneaology is fairly simple once you get the hang of it. First- person narrator Orson, for example, is the half-acknowledged son of Francis Phelan’s younger brother Peter, also a drinking man and a Greenwich Village painter of some repute.
The novel’s plot — such as it is — centers around a Phelan family gathering in 1958 during which Peter may or may not recognize Orson as his legitimate son and try to heal a few family grudges. Orson, however, uses the occasion to weave his own life story — a ”cautionary tale of diseased self-contemplation,” as he sees it — into the broader Phelan saga. The result reads less like a novel than a series of campaign reports detailing the eternal war in the Irish soul between sexual puritanism and sensuality, religious orthodoxy and the seduction of art.
Or at least that’s how Orson would have us see it. An observer less taken by the novel’s Joycean blarney might be tempted to observe that like Ironweed, Very Old Bones is about four generations of alcoholism. You can always count on a drunk for a fancy prose style, and Orson’s self-pitying rationalizations for drinking himself into a coma match those of his Uncle Francis. Well, almost. Francis, at least, had accidentally killed his infant son. Orson’s own anguish is both more abstract and a good deal more tiresome. ”I am desperately weary,” he informs us at one point, ”of contemplating the fact that I have nothing to contemplate except the weariness of having nothing to contemplate.” Hardly the stuff of classic tragedy.
Actually, the cruelest thing you can do to Ironweed is to watch the movie of the same name, a faithful adaptation written by Kennedy. Stripped of his creator’s evocative prose, Francis Phelan emerges as little more than a liquor-sodden bully — his story as unendurably repetitious as any other drunk’s.
Even though Very Old Bones has its moments, you never quite believe in Peter Phelan’s artistic genius, nor in the gravity of his son’s plight. Take, for example, Orson’s big discovery after a near-fatal binge. ”Suicide,” he confides, ”is pointless, for the entertainment value of terminal events exceeds that of the vapid flight to oblivion.” There’s not a whole lot you can do except pick up your beer and move to the other end of the bar. C+