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I'll Be in Albany

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William Kennedy returns to high 'Ironweed' form in his new novel, 'The Flaming Corsage'

By Allen Barra

THE PUBLICATION of William Kennedy's new novel, The Flaming Corsage, at the same time as the re-publishing of the first three novels (Legs, Billy Phelan's Greatest Game and the apocalyptic Ironweed) in what has come to be called the Albany Cycle might seem risky to his reputation.

For a while, Kennedy's excavations of old Albany were compared, and not without some justification, to Faulkner's in Yoknapatawpha County (though given the characters' ambitions and lost illusions, a miniature version of Balzac's Paris might be more in order).

The fourth and fifth novels (Quinn's Book and Very Old Bones) in the Albany Cycle all featured the familiar Irish Catholic resurrection symbols, the communion with spirits and the mordant tone of the early books, but the farther Kennedy strayed from the lowlifes of his three great novels and the more genteel his characters became, the more the adjectives and metaphors seemed strained. Increasingly, Kennedy's use of interior monologues was turning into an artificially literary device; Kennedy didn't know those people well enough to illuminate them from the inside.

The Flaming Corsage is a return to form. Kennedy has resurrected the popular playwright Edward Daugherty, first met in Billy Phelan's Greatest Game, fleshed him out and followed his rise and fall in the social and literary world of New York from the (original) Gay Nineties to WWI. Daugherty, a journalist and aspiring playwright, "a mud-hole mick from the North End," in the words of a friendly rival, has grand plans for marrying the beautiful Katrina, daughter of Jacob Taylor, head of one of Albany's first and wealthiest (i.e., WASP) families. "I intend," he tells her to her face, "to pursue you with a fervid Irish passion, unlike anything you've ever imagined."

But, as Balzac said, behind every great fortune there is a crime, and, for Edward, the original sin of Katrina Taylor's ancestors ("A culture of avaricious land barons," Daugherty calls them) was the ravaging of Ireland under Cromwell. "The Irish are abominable, false, cunning, and perfidious people," reads a volume of history in the Taylor family library. "The worst means of governing them is to give them their own way." The Albany Irish of The Flaming Corsage take the reigns of government and society and make things their own way; the marriage of Edward and Katrina becomes a battleground when the arrogance of a ruling people collides with the amoral ambition of a rising one.

A tragedy follows the marriage: the burning of an old, elegant Albany hotel. It seems like a bonfire to the conflicting dreams of the two families. The fire precipitates a series of passion crimes that look like (and which Kennedy wishes us to see as) the sort of turn-of-the-century Girl-on-the-Red-Velvet-Swing-type stuff that was once the fodder of Sunday supplements.

With his acquired Yankee pragmatism, Edward turns the incidents into the stuff of melodrama, including a scandalous production titled The Flaming Corsage inspired by a grisly incident on the night of the great fire. The play sinks Daugherty's career but brings him peace by affording him perspective on his life. "She wasn't mad," he concludes of his dazzling former wife. "She was original."

ACTUALLY, LIKE all of Kennedy's best characters, she's both. Kennedy still has trouble with the brittle rhythm of upper-class wit: "You say the most outlandish things, Katrina," is someone's clunky response when Katrina says something outlandish. Kennedy isn't Henry James (who puts in a brief appearance, by the way, to remind us how poorly his own father's Albany contemporaries turned out), nor would we want him to be.

Kennedy's subject matter has been the Americanization of an immigrant people who aspire to success in a society their own best instincts tell them to despise. The only capital his people have to bargain their way with is a dark-hearted but generous Irish wit. On his deathbed, for instance, Edward's father, Emmett, spars with his priest, insisting "I've nothin' to confess."

"Confess the sins you forgot and I'll forgive those."

"I forgot none I ever committed. The memory of them kept me smiling for forty-five years."

"I'll forgive those. Anything else?"

"I let my wife work too hard."

"You've got company on that one. ... Is that all the sins?"

"I could make some up."

"No need for that."

For his penance, he's told to say "One Hail Mary and have some more ale."

Happily, Kennedy isn't afraid to use another Gaelic wordsmith as a set-up man. "Your remark," Edward tells a friend during a verbal joust, "is pure Oscar Wilde."

"There is," comes the reply, "no pure Oscar Wilde." No, but with The Flaming Corsage there is once more pure William Kennedy.

The Flaming Corsage by William Kennedy; Viking; 209 pages; $22.95 cloth.

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From the June 6-12, 1996 issue of Metro

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