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Social Concerns / Themes

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Very Old Bones continues the saga of the Irish-American Phelan and Quinn families that runs through Ironweed (1983), Billy Phelan's Greatest Game (1978), and Quinn's Book (1988). Unlike those earlier novels, Very Old Bones de-emphasizes Albany as spiritual and historical place and focuses instead on the genetic, psychological, and family forces that shape character and thus fate in three generations of these families. "We are never without the overcoats, however lice-ridden, of our ancestors" ruefully muses the narrator and central character Orson Purcell as he alludes to the oft times contaminated family inheritance we inevitably come to possess.

The title Very Old Bones suggests the metaphoric skeletons within the Phelan family history that drove away the older brothers Francis and Peter, and reduced those remaining in the home on Colonie Street to unfulfilled, unhappy lives. Orson will characterize the family situation as "wreckage . . . left behind in the wake of the behavior of the males in the family ... a pattern of abdication, or flight, or exile, with the women left behind to pick up the pieces of fractured life." Where Ironweed shows us an alienated and deeply troubled Francis Phelan struggling tragically but heroically with the self-inflicted disasters of his adult life, Very Old Bones shows us in greater detail those earlier tensions within the family that make it impossible for him to live with his mother and sister Sarah after his seduction at age eighteen by Katrina Daugherty. The argument that ensues when Sarah divulges the liaison to their mother drives him from the home and deepens our sense of his emotional alienation in both novels. In this regard, Very Old Bones is both a prequel to the Phelan saga which appears in the earlier novels and a self-contained work of its own, albeit one enriched by familiarity with those earlier works.

The devastation within this Irish-American family is attributed to an unfortunate cultural stereotype: the frigid matriarch (in this case, Kathryn Phelan) who creates and presides over a sexually repressed family. That sexual denial is most strongly instilled in her eldest daughter Sarah, and their hostile and sometimes violent reactions to sexual development in other members of the family and community drive the family apart. The ensuing diaspora is both physical (with Francis and Peter) and emotional (with Sarah, Molly, Charles, and Tommy, who remain within the home). The Phelans come to be, as Orson will conclude, that "family . . . collective of the thwarted spirit, of the communal psyche that so desperately wants not to be plural."

Kathryn's frigidity and its consequences stem directly from her witnessing her brother's brutal murder of his wife, that act becoming the "collective evil to which so many members of this family have been heir, heiress, and victim." She and her brother Malachi emigrate to America in 1870. Malachi marries Lizzie Cronin but the marriage remains childless despite Malachi's prodigious efforts. After a night of drunken lovemaking, Malachi awakens "bereft of his privates" and, after consultation with his syphilitic friend Crip Devlin, determines his wife Lizzie has been possessed by a succubus and must be exorcised. She is tortured, severely burned, and dies. Malachi's surrealistic emasculation resembles a hallucination informed by his manic sexual excess and the frustration of childlessness. The scene and the entire Malachi episode take on mythic proportions in accounting for the "curse" on the Phelans and frigidity in the "mothers" of the family. This event specifically identifies the instigating trauma in the Phelan history but its haunted surrealistic details and symbolic associations make it a broader statement about the Catholic Celtic Irish.

Malachi's friend Crip, a failed priest infected with syphilis by his own wife, cites the authority of the Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches), a fifteenth- century theological analysis of witchcraft whose "divinely inspired...

(The entire section is 1,829 words.)