BOOK REVIEW / A rattling of skeletons: Very old bones - William Kennedy: Viking, pounds 14.99

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The Independent Online
VERY Old Bones is the sixth novel in William Kennedy's Albany cycle, a sequence encompassing three generations of an Irish-American family, last visited in the magnificent Quinn's Book. Kennedy has staked out a mythic milieu in his Albany, a romantic, sepia-soaked domain of bars and dining rooms and flophouses whose denizens do not so much dance to the music of time as listen to its melancholy murmur.

We are once again in the company of Phelans, Daughertys and Quinns. The time is 1958, and the book's narrator, 34-year-old Orson Purcell, is limbering up for his vocation as the family memoirist. Just who his family is remains unclear, for Orson is the unacknowledged son of Peter Phelan: his lineage will be revealed in the book's final dramatic flourish.

The narrator has emerged from mental and spiritual trauma to write 'this cautionary tale of diseased self-contemplation', which in turn becomes a document of his putative father's celebrated paintings. Stationed with the occupying forces in post-war Germany, Orson has honed his talents as a brilliant cardsharp to bankroll his courtship of the strange and beautiful Giselle; he marries her, but there is no happy ending. Dabbling in black market chicanery, he lands himself in trouble with the military police, precipitating a decline from boozed-up stupor to burnt-out dementia.

Returning to New York, Orson tries, with only partial success, to get back on terms with sanity. Installed with the Phelan family at their house on Colonie Street, he recounts the history of his troubled forebears, tracing in their infirmities the seeds of his own collapse. There is Chick Phelan, the failed priest whose marriage plans are blocked by his sister Sarah, a domineering and obsessively chaste woman who has devoted her life to her mother's memory; Tommy, the half-wit brother; Francis, the down-and-out who abandoned all family ties; Molly, tragically widowed and harbouring a secret she discloses to Orson more than 20 years later. But it is Peter whose character - and work - receive the keenest scrutiny, first through his series of 'Itinerant' paintings, an ambiguous tribute to his vagrant brother, then through the gory restagings of a murder committed by his early ancestor, mad Malachi.

The book brims with these images of torment. Flashbacks to scenes from the Phelan hearth are suffused with the kind of violence and despair that takes a lifetime to exorcise. This is a family so entrenched in sadness that 'even when the sun finally does come our way, we grieve at the change, and we pray for thunderstorms'. Little wonder Orson's novel gets a lukewarm reception from the publishers. The venerable editor praises his work and tells him he's the best since O'Hara, but his colleagues are not so enthusiastic - 'they say it lacks a verve for life, that it's life seen through a black veil of doom'. And, let's face it, he wants to sell some books here.

Orson takes the rejection, and makes a mental note to tighten up (Life Is Worth Living is the book that catches his eye in Scribners' window). What's more, he casts around for what that 'verve' might mean: 'I remembered the flustered Methodist cleric who protested to his Irish taxi driver that he had asked not for St Patrick's, but for Christ's Church, and the driver advised him, 'If you don't find him here, he's not in town'. There's verve' - and a great Catholic joke to boot.

Throughout Very Old Bones you may find yourself, for all that verve, wishing it were somehow better - tighter in structure, tougher on coherence. Kennedy is a dab hand at set pieces - the finale of a family reunion is particularly well staged - and he knows how to tell an affecting anecdote. Unfortunately, he hasn't much interest in shaping a whole narrative. The book shuttles back and forth in time, reluctant to settle into a pattern. From this diffuseness emerges what might be called a mosaic; but it could be just a scrappy assemblage of one family's snapshots and skeletons. Very Old Bones carries an ominous and often compelling rattle, but what it really needs is a good tune to hold it all together.