Very Old Bones
William Kennedy has established himself as, in William Faulkner’s terms, “sole owner and proprietor” of upper New York State, most especially the city of Albany. Like Faulkner, he has created a family to inhabit that landscape, a family that spans the years and illustrates in its successive generations the changes of the country itself. Kennedy’s Phelan family was first introduced in Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game (1978) and then further explored in Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Ironweed (1983). Both these novels were set largely in the 1930’s. One of the family’s more distant ancestors was the central character of Quinn’s Book (1988), placed in nineteenth century New York. In Very Old Bones, names, characters, and events from each of these works of the “Albany Cycle” are recalled and carried forward into the 1950’s. As the Phelan family grows more complex (a helpful genealogical chart is provided on the endpapers of Very Old Bones), so does Kennedy’s telling. With the complexity comes an increasing richness, a working out of questions and problems, and finally a sense of wholeness, if not of ultimate closure.
The story in Very Old Bones is narrated, and is reconstructed, by Orson Purcell, who is thirty-four years old at the time of his telling, Saturday, July 26, 1958. Orson is the son of Peter Phelan, an artist who became famous with his series of “Itinerant” paintings, inspired by events in the life of his older brother Francis. (Francis is the chief character in Ironweed, the book that recounts his final return to Albany in 1938 after years as a hobo.) Peter’s second great success is also based on family history. His “Malachi Suite,” the group of graphic, horrifying images that he paints in his last years, reveals the lunatic fantasy of his uncle, Malachi McIlhenny, his mother’s brother, whose madness ended in murderous tragedy.
As narrator, Orson Purcell learns and observes his family’s story as an outsider. Orson’s mother is Claire Purcell, Peter’s unfaithful mistress and assistant to the magician Manfredo the Magnificent. As a result of her betrayal with Manfredo, Peter refuses to acknowledge Orson as his actual son, although he does help rear him and treats him with general love and respect. Orson’s position in the family is thus an unusual one: He is assumed to be Peter’s biological son, but he cannot be absorbed fully into the household. He therefore maintains a dual vision of the family, as observer and participant.
Orson’s story is divided between the historical events in the Phelan family and his own personal experiences, which derive in part from this heritage and from his unorthodox upbringing. Uncertain of his actual lineage, Orson as a child spends time with his mother, learning Manfredo’s tricks of illusion, and with his father, experiencing the artistic life. Employed as an editor by a Manhattan publishing house after graduation, Orson is called up during the Korean War and stationed in Germany (as was William Kennedy himself; much about the book seems self-referential). There he meets and soon marries Giselle Marais, a photographer with an eye for the bizarre, the camera “her Gift of Eyes, the catalyst for her decision to seek out the images that lurk on the dark side of the soul.” In an attempt (in part) to impress Giselle, Orson becomes involved in an illegal currency trading scheme; his subsequent arrest leads to a severe mental breakdown, although the causes of that breakdown go well beyond the arrest itself. As the army psychiatrist puts it, “He is the unredeemable, loathsome, fear-ridden orphan of the storm, living in the shadow of an achieved father, crippled, he thinks, by the genes of unknown ancestors, and now with a future that holds only degradation, possibly of a lifelong order.” Following a medical discharge, Orson returns to the United States to live with his father, while Giselle stays in Germany to pursue her career, which has been helped enormously by photographs she has taken of Orson at the height of his dementia.
Book 1 of the novel ends with Orson’s return to the United States. He leaves Giselle in the company of his cousin Danny Quinn, the grandson of Francis Phelan (son of his daughter Margaret, or Peg, and her husband George Quinn). Book 2 shifts to December, 1934, when Orson is ten years old. His introduction to the Phelan family occurs at the funeral and wake of Kathryn Phelan, Francis and Peter’s mother. Peter brings the boy with him to the family home in Albany but introduces him as his landlady’s son. In this guise, Orson meets the rest of Kathryn’s living children, the brothers Chick and Tommy and the sisters Sarah and Mary (one sister, Julia, has died at the age of twenty-two). He also meets the wandering Francis, who appears unexpectedly out of the night. Sarah, the older sister who has assumed the position of authority in the house,...
(The entire section is 2028 words.)