Billy Phelan's Greatest Game Summary
by William Kennedy

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Billy Phelan's Greatest Game Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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 looks on the shady adventures of his subject with a certain degree of envy. As a reporter, Daugherty has seen too much of the world, and with the eye of a cynic, he looks with disgust at the political corruption that has become a way of life in his town.

The action of the story centers on the bizarre kidnapping of the political boss’s nephew. Billy, who is a small cog in the McCall machine, gets pulled in as reluctant go-between. He is pushed to turn informer and must decide whether to uphold his underworld image or comply with the demands of his political patrons by informing on the kidnappers.

Typical of Kennedy’s style, Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game is narrated in vivid, fast-paced cinematic prose that mirrors the swift, suspenseful action of the rough and sweaty city his characters call home. The shabby but ever-resourceful underworld figures move at night, hiding in the shadows, occasionally illuminated by the glow of neon signs. They inhabit the rough world of the Irish working class, where being a survivor is all that counts.

Like Legs, Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game enjoyed a respectable number of favorable...

(The entire section is 618 words.)