BOOK REVIEW / Third-grade memory trips: Very old bones - by William Kennedy: Viking pounds 14.99

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The Independent Culture
WELCOME back to the Albany Cycle. This time it is 1958 and the narrator is Orson Purcell, bastard son of Peter Phelen, the gifted artist whose brother was the hero of William Kennedy's Pulitzer Prize-winning Ironweed. Peter is now old and ailing, and has gathered his relations to hear his will and to see a final series of masterworks that will reveal, explain and release them from the curse of a very old family secret.

Readers who can detect in the above synopsis the makings of an updated Cat on a Hot Tin Roof may rest assured: the threatened showdown never happens. Time flows backwards more often than forwards. Dramatic tension exists only to be dissipated. Much of the book takes place in post-war Germany, where our hero gets involved in the black market to finance his unlikely marriage to the glamorous Giselle, and in New York City, where he goes after being caught (but not court- martialled, thanks to a psychiatrist who certifies him insane). Here he sets himself up as a writer, only to suffer a second, more serious breakdown.

Oh yes, and we mustn't forget Saratoga Springs, where he dries out and becomes whole again - although it will be perfectly understandable if we do. This is a busy book, full of tiny wooden characters who are never quite at ease with the catastrophically unreliable narrator's overstated grand design. Although he claims to be in the business of redemption, he is far more interested in giving thematic importance to his half- baked story with pompous lectures on Western thought: 'Freud wrote of imaginative artists that they could, through artistic illusion, produce emotional effects that seemed real and so, he said, they could justly be compared to magicians]' 'Keats invented the term 'negative capability' to define what he saw in the true poetical character. Artists, of course, use their guilt, their madness, their sexual energy and anything else that comes their way, to advance their art.'

Although sex is always significant - there is hardly a page without a pleasing striptease or a baring of noteworthy breasts - we are rarely allowed inside the bedroom. We must make do with laughably refined nudge-nudges about 'uxorious delights', 'spermatic frenzy' and 'the encunted life'. Women seem to exist only to remind the narrator that the time has come for another mechanical Proustian trip into dreary early memory: 'I looked at the whore. She looked like my third- grade teacher who used to rub herself against the edge of the desk while lecturing us. A beautiful woman. A tall redhead with long blond (sic) hair. She was smitten with me. Followed my career all through grammar school. No one quite like her, the sweet little dolly.'

After all the praise William Kennedy has received, the last thing we expect from him is barstool fantasy, let alone this kind of sloppy, smooth-talking sentimentality.