Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Like Legs, Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game tells a story of Albany’s seamier side, based on an actual incident from the city’s history. In this second novel of what is often called the “Albany cycle,” Kennedy fashions his work of fiction around the real-life 1933 kidnapping of John O’Connell, Jr., the nephew of Mayor Dan O’Connell and the heir apparent to Albany’s omnipotent Democratic machine. In Kennedy’s novel, the year is moved forward to 1938, the O’Connells become the McCalls, and John, Jr., is known as Charlie Boy. Caught in the middle, torn between lending his services to the kidnappers or to the politicians, is Billy Phelan. Billy is a thirty-one-year-old pool hustler, bowling ace, poker player, and bookie who feels at home in the tough streets of this Depression-era town.
Along with its other similarities to Legs, Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game shares a similar narrative structure. Billy’s story is told by Martin Daugherty, a world-weary columnist from Albany’s Times-Union (the newspaper Kennedy worked for before becoming a full-time fiction writer). Like Marcus Gorman in Legs, Daugherty acts as foil to the protagonist. Daugherty is a fifty-year-old husband and father, a man burdened with responsibility. With sympathy and understanding, he tells the story of Billy Phelan, a tough, street-smart young man of hardy Irish stock, and like Legs’s Martin Gorman, he...
(The entire section is 501 words.)
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Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
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Giamo, Benedict. The Homeless of “Ironweed”: Blossoms on the Crag. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1996.
Kennedy, Liam. “Memory and Hearsay: Ethnic Identity in Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game and Ironweed.” MELUS 18 (1993): 71-82.
Lynch, Vivian Valvano. Portraits of Artists: Warriors in the Novels of William Kennedy. San Francisco: International Scholars, 1999.
Michener, Christian. From Then into Now: William Kennedy’s Albany Novels. Scranton, Ill.: University of Scranton Press, 1998.
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