Family Values

Very Old Bones

by William Kennedy
Viking, 292 pp., $22.00

The Evening Star

by Larry McMurtry
Simon and Schuster, 637 pp., $23.00

In making the case for restoring “traditional family values,” politicians imply that there have always been “traditional” families which were beneficial to their members, and that their supposed disappearance has created much of the misery observable all around us. William Kennedy’s Very Old Bones is a family novel that puts this rhetoric in its place. The fourth of Kennedy’s “Albany novels,” it returns to the Phelan family of Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game (1978) and Ironweed (1982). (The first book in the series, Legs [1975], does not have to do with the family.)

The Phelans came from Ireland in the 1820s to help dig the Erie Canal, work as lumbermen and railroaders, and gradually enter the lower middle class. In Very Old Bones Kennedy is concerned with the seven children born of the marriage of Michael Phelan and Kathryn McIlhenny in 1879, and that generation’s own, less bounteous issue. In 1895, after siring his family and building the house on Colonie Street that some of the Phelans still inhabit in 1958, the year in which Very Old Bones purports to be written, Michael had died. Kathryn survived him for another four decades and brought up their children harshly and piously.

Of their daughters, Julia died young and single, Molly was married in her mid-forties and widowed two years after, and Sarah, a devout and tyrannical spinster, has kept house for her mother and siblings as her father had commanded her to before he died. Chick Phelan, a feckless linotypist who had failed at the priesthood and school teaching, left home in 1954 after a bitter quarrel with Sarah, married the woman he had desired but not slept with for seventeen years, and settled in Florida. Shortly later, Tommy, a mental defective, drowned at the water filtration plant where he worked.

The other two sons had talent. Francis, the oldest child and the tormented central character of Ironweed, fathered three children and killed one of them accidentally, played professional baseball (three years in the majors), and left home for good in 1916, to spend the rest of his life as a drifter and wino—“Artist of the open road. Hero of Whitmanesque America,” as his brother Peter describes him with fond irony. Francis died during World War II, after his brief return to Albany and baseball, as a coach.

Peter, the second son, also ran away, in 1913, to become a painter. He had a long liaison with his landlady in Greenwich Village, who bore a son, though possibly not his son, in 1924. Peter began to make a small reputation as an artist in the late 1930s with his Itinerant series of paintings, inspired by his remorse and pity for Francis. In 1954, after Sarah’s death, he returned home with his putative son, Orson Purcell, to take care of Molly and Tommy, and live rent-free. The novel which takes in these events is written as Orson Purcell’s memoir of his family.

Orson Purcell’s self-questionings …

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