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William Kennedy's 'Very Old Bones': a 'tale of diseased self-contemplation'



William Kennedy.


292 pages. $22. The good news about "Very Old Bones" -- the latest entry in William Kennedy's justly celebrated Albany, N.Y., cycle, and the third book in what now seems likely to be called his Phelan Trilogy -- is that his writing has lost none of its humor and none of its snap; that the Phelan family is back; and that the tidings are juicy. The bad news is that he has yielded to the most dangerous of modern temptations and written a novel about writing novels.

Writers have, of course, played a part in every one of his books. Until now, though, they have always been newsmen. At the center of "Very Old Bones" stand two Artists: Peter Phelan, a painter whose brother is Francis Phelan (of "Ironweed"), and Orson Purcell, a writer who is Pete's unacknowledged bastard son. It's pretty clear that Mr. Kennedy has refracted his own career here, giving us both a hapless ephebe in Orson and a fully mature talent in Peter, who, like the Mr. Kennedy of 1992, "has managed to jump through the flaming hoop of high art and come out the other side as a potential creature of the popular imagination."

Though nominally set in Albany on July 26, 1958, the novel's action in fact spans the previous eight decades. It takes the form of two dovetailing stories of foiled escape. Peter Phelan flees Albany in 1913 and lands in Greenwich Village, where his art and his bohemianism bring temporary relief from the family pressures that have destroyed his brother Francis and crippled the other siblings. Eventually, Peter realizes that only his paintings

and drawings with family themes have any value. By 1958 he has moved back to Albany and is working feverishly on a final cycle portraying the historic act of family madness that for nearly a century has warped the Phelans' lives.

Peter's putative son, Orson, meanwhile, has tried to escape the frightening implications of his own artistic potential. Although he's a gifted writer, he spends his energy and talents on his beautiful wife, Giselle. Twice he goes crazy -- first in postwar Germany, where, as an Army officer, he's cheating at poker and smuggling hard currency to fund his entertainment of Giselle; and then again in New York, where he is taking care of his father and doing literary hack work. The second crackup finally brings home to Orson that love alone will not suffice to banish his demons. He no more can escape his art than Peter can escape his family. He must immerse himself in that family's history, must be its voice.

The resulting memoir is "Very Old Bones," "a cautionary tale of diseased self-contemplation" narrated by Orson himself. It's an oddly static book, less a story than an explication of family-historical vignettes. The old bones of the title are not just a central prop in one of the book's most captivating stories, nor simply a symbol for Mr. Kennedy's transmutation of his ancestral religion (that Catholicism of charnel houses and saintly carpi and tarsi) into the secular religions of family and art. Bones are what the book as a whole is like: pithy and a little macabre, strongly suggestive of an orderly living thing, yet itself neither orderly nor fully alive.

Stripped of fat, often of muscle as well, and connected to one another mainly by implication, the best scenes have to do with Peter Phelan's siblings -- the homecoming of Francis for their mother's wake, the tragic progress of his sister Molly's genius for love. These scenes have been imagined from Orson's grown-up perspective, which makes for some wonderfully eerie moments when the child Orson appears like a time-traveler, with his first-person I, in the midst of ancient goings-on.

One of the book's problems is that the lives of Peter and Orson are less interesting and resonant than those of Peter's siblings. Compounding the difficulty of sympathizing with Orson are the multiple perfections of his wife, Giselle, who not only is stunningly beautiful (a "cover girl type"), and not only achieves instant success as an artist, and not only is witty and self-aware, and not only enjoys wearing dresses with no underwear, but also, ultimately, is eager to become a mother. Bravery and compassion? We are introduced to Giselle as she rescues a belly dancer from a crowd of drunken soldiers by inviting the soldiers to peer up her own skirt. ("I see those piggies still," Orson writes, "moving in their everlasting ellipse -- that piggy-go-round . . . ")

Mr. Kennedy is too good a writer, of course, to stay insufferable for long. An early scene with Orson and his cousin, Billy Phelan, reminds us of the author's unrivaled skill at capturing the physical and social decay of an American city. In both of Orson's descents into madness, too, the writing is effulgent and desperately comic, dizzying in its depths of sorrow and accesses of loquacity.

Throughout the book, his dialogue, always one of his strengths, is stylized into something bone-like and gleaming, a thing of essences.

Unfortunately, for every few pages of elegant prose in "Very Old Bones" there's a small embarrassment. Whether it's in the hyper-literariness of Peter's paintings, in the author's semaphoring of thematic connections, or in Orson's penchant for public remarks such as, "We'll do anything to gain a little power over life, since none of us know our limits until we're challenged -- and that's when the strangeness begins," the bones of this novel's conceptual skeleton are often more visible than is welcome.

Then, too, at every level, there's that self-consciousness. It stilts conversations, generates pages of ponderings of the art-family dialectic, and finally produces a novel in which very little really happens. Though more daring in structure than Mr. Kennedy's earlier work, and more diverse in locale, "Very Old Bones" remains steeped in closure, ritual, culmination.

The book is an argument for fiction as an agent of catharsis and demon-banishment, but as a working example of such fiction, it seems unlikely to convert any of those legions who have forsaken the consolations of literature for the pleasures of television or therapy. Which leaves one hoping that this irreplaceable American author has banished his own demon of self-consciousness, and that other, more interesting demons will soon return to haunt him.

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