Very Old Bones

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

VERY OLD BONES is the latest installment in what William Kennedy has come to call his Albany Cycle. All set in Albany, N.Y., these novels center on multiple generations of the Quinn-McIlhenny-Phelan families, although a number of recurring secondary characters outside the families also people each of the works. The best known, and probably most successful, of Kennedy’s books is the Pulitzer Prize-winning IRONWEED (1983), which describes the final homecoming of the wanderer Francis Phelan, former professional baseball player and subsequent hobo, in 1938. VERY OLD BONES, set in a present time of 1958, expands the cast of the Phelan family even further.

The narrator of Kennedy’s latest book is Orson Purcell, unacknowledged son of Peter Phelan, brother of Francis. Peter Phelan is an artist, a painter whose greatest work is inspired by events in his family’s past. His “Itinerant” paintings are based on scenes in Francis’ life; his final masterpieces, the “Malachi Suite,” are his visions of much darker and horrifying events in the family history. Orson, himself a gifted writer and witness, attempts to reconcile the past with the present, to recognize how the past creates the present.

VERY OLD BONES depicts a series of family gatherings, from a horrific attempt at exorcism in 1887 to Kathryn Phelan’s funeral in 1934 to the reading of Peter Phelan’s will in 1958. Kennedy provides a genealogical chart of the Phelan family, a help to the reader and positive proof of Kennedy’s expanding creativity. Although each addition to his Albany Cycle has enriched those that have preceded it, VERY OLD BONES is certainly among the most satisfying.

Sources for Further Study

America. CLXVII, November 21, 1992, p. 410.

Chicago Tribune. April 26, 1992, XIV, p. 3.

The Christian Science Monitor. May 12, 1992, p. 13.

Commonweal. CXIX, May 22, 1992, p. 28.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. April 26, 1992, p. 2.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVII, May 10, 1992, p. 1.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIX, February 3, 1992, p. 62.

Time. CXXXIX, April 27, 1992, p. 68.

The Times Literary Supplement. August 21, 1992, p. 17.

The Washington Post Book World. XXII, May 10, 1992, p. 5.