The Flaming Corsage

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

With the publication of The Flaming Corsage, William Kennedy extends one of the important American literary projects of the later twentieth century. The Albany Cycle, a collective title dreamed up as a marketing device by an editor at Viking, Kennedy’s publisher, originally applied to three novels: Legs (1975), Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game (1978), and Ironweed (1983). Following the success of Ironweed, Viking hoped to awaken interest in the two neglected earlier novels by suggesting their function as parts of a larger design; the three novels were issued in a single binding in the later 1980’s, and the Cycle thus became a reality.

It is now clear that the three novels were in turn part of a still larger whole. Three further novels have appeared since Ironweed: Quinn’s Book (1988), Very Old Bones (1992), and The Flaming Corsage. The Albany Cycle has been accepted as the collective title of all six, and the end is not in sight. There is no reason to suppose that Kennedy as a literary artist will ever leave Albany. He has said in the past that he realizes he is the sort of writer for whom the sense of place is crucial and that there is no place he will ever know any better than he knows his native Albany. Staying thus at home permits him to explore how the inner lives of human beings are shaped by the experience of living in a particular time and a particular place. Since this kind of experience shapes everyone, Kennedy’s examination of particulars manifesting themselves through highly individual, often idiosyncratic, characters, can, when successfully carried through, point toward what is most universal in us.

The Flaming Corsage begins with a melodramatic episode: a shooting in a Manhattan hotel suite. On a night in 1908, a man identified as “the husband” kills his wife and wounds a second man in the room; a second woman manages to escape unharmed. The husband then turns the gun on himself. Who these people are and what has brought them to this fatal confrontation is a mystery that the narrative will gradually resolve.

While the scene, if a touch overblown, is undeniably an attention getter, and while the mystery it generates promotes a curiosity that will help to focus the reader’s response for much of the novel, the episode itself proves to be something like what the film director Alfred Hitchcock called a “maguffin”: a device for focusing the audience’s (in this case, the reader’s) attention while the story’s real center of interest lies elsewhere.

“Elsewhere,” on this occasion, means the relationship of Edward Daugherty and Katrina Taylor, the woman Edward marries in 1886. The marriage is an unlikely one in the Albany of the period, since Edward is an Irish Catholic, of working-class origins, while Katrina is of English ancestry, a member in good standing of Albany’s Episcopalian ruling class. Both families are predictably aghast at the thought of marriage between these two, Katrina’s parents because they consider the Irish infinitely beneath them (Edward’s mother had worked as a servant at the home of friends of the Taylors), and Edward’s father because he knows how the Taylors feel and because of the role Jacob Taylor played in labor struggles in the past.

It seems, though, that neither Edward nor Katrina can be defined by such affiliations. Edward is an artist, a writer, and artists, according to one view at least, transcend the ordinary categories of class and ethnicity. As for Katrina, her very involvement with Edward testifies to her liberation from the narrow attitudes of her parents’ generation. Her actions can seem so spontaneous that it is hard to conceive of them as links in any kind of sociocultural causal chain, as when she astonishes Edward by giving herself to him sexually one Sunday afternoon in the Angel of the Holy Sepulchre cemetery. Her response to a comment by Edward’s father seems to define a spiritual independence that approaches the sublime: “I do what I think I should do, so I can become what I think I must be.”

Yet it is not so easy to deny the power of the past and the attachments, personal, cultural, ideological, that it entails. By the night of October 16, 1908, the marriage of Edward and Katrina is in trouble. The Taylors’ acceptance of their son-in-law has never been more than formal and superficial, and Katrina for her part has surprised in herself a need to reembrace her father and the comforts among which she was raised in the Taylor family home on Elk Street. Still, Edward, now enjoying success as a writer, continues his campaign to overcome these obstacles to a happy union. On this night Katrina’s parents, her sister Adelaide, and Adelaide’s husband Archie Van Slyke are the dinner guests of Edward and Katrina at the Delavan...

(The entire section is 2000 words.)