To a writer, the most poignant character in Albert Camus’ La Peste (1947; The Plague, 1948) is Joseph Grand, a municipal clerk with dreams of literary glory. Grand has spent years crafting a masterpiece, but all he has to show is a solitary sentence endlessly rewritten. Yet Grand is confident that some day an important editor will read his completed manuscript and proclaim: “Hats off!”
The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction provides just such a fantasy of lifted hats, and two Kennedys—John Kennedy Toole and William Kennedy—have enacted contrasting parables of Pulitzer recognition. Toole was an earnest young New Orleans author who was devastated when his first novel was rejected by some two dozen publishers. After his suicide, Toole’s mother continued the campaign to get the book printed. When she finally succeeded, with a bit of help from Louisiana author Walker Percy, A Confederacy of Dunces (1980) became a commercial and critical triumph. Posthumous winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, in 1981, Toole did not live to see the literary world remove its hats to him.
William Kennedy managed to get his first novel, The Ink Truck (1969) published, though very few noticed, and editors were not demonstrably eager to see him again. Several books later, Ironweed (1983) was turned down by almost everyone, until Nobel laureate Saul Bellow interceded on its behalf. When finally published, the novel won the 1984 Pulitzer Prize, and its middle-aged author, a former newspaperman, awoke to find himself rich and famous, a happy sailor in a sea of hatless heads.
Kennedy begins his fifth novel, Quinn’s Book, with an epigraph from Camus: “... a man’s work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.” The attention that Quinn’s Book received testifies to the fact that the world has at last discovered its author, whose characters—in five novels—conduct a trek toward self-discovery.
Kennedy has become the unlikely bard of Albany, New York, which he has made his Dublin, his Wessex, and his Yoknapatawpha County and which he celebrates in his personalized chronicle O Albany! An Urban Tapestry (1983). Quinn’s Book, like the “Albany Cycle” of Legs (1975), Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game (1978), and Ironweed, is set in the New York capital, as well as nearby Saratoga and in New York City. It begins in December, 1849, with a daring scene of cataclysm, necrophilia, and resurrection. A burly boatman aptly named John the Brawn retrieves the inanimate body of erotic dancer Magdalena Colón from the icy Hudson River. His torrid copulation with her comely corpse brings it back to vivid life. Magdalena is soon able to resume her career as “one of the great philanthropists in the entire history of sensuality.”
Daniel Quinn, John’s fourteen-year-old assistant, witnesses this rescue and resuscitation, and he himself saves Magdalena’s twelve-year-old niece Maud Fallon from the frigid waters. It will take fifteen years and the length of the novel before the younger couple can consummate their love. The narrative is Quinn’s book, his autobiographical account of coming-of-age, as a nineteenth century American, a lover, and a writer. The unschooled Quinn is the plucky hero of his own Horatio Alger story, though his success is measured in proudly chosen words, his own flamboyant display of literary prowess.
To write his book, Quinn must first experience the luxury of life with an Albany Dutch plutocrat and the threat to it posed by a clandestine, sinister syndicate, called the Society, that controls the region. He witnesses the desperate plight of fugitive slaves and of freed blacks tyrannized by poor whites who are fearful of cheaper labor. He is present when Irish immigrants and native workers...
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