William Kennedy
William Kennedy; drawing by David Levine

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 are at the center of Very Old Bones. He is unsure of his parentage and his “credentials” as a Phelan; his life is shadowed by an episode of madness that he suffered during and just after his service in Germany during the Korean War. He is afraid of losing his attractive French wife, Giselle, a Life photographer who is often away on assignments; he yearns to be a writer, not just a manuscript-fixer for the publisher he works for. An accomplished cardshark who dreams of an imaginative magic that could reveal some radical innocence within his fallen life, Orson writes this book in the hope of reconstructing and making endurable the sources of his being.

But Orson’s first-hand experience of the Phelans is limited. In 1934, as a boy of ten, going with Peter to Albany for the funeral of Kathryn, he met for the first time Peter’s siblings, including the long-lost Francis, for whom the reunion was almost fatal. Orson has seen the family occasionally during his college days in Albany, but he got to know them and their history closely only when Giselle took him to them in 1953 to recover from his second breakdown. Most of what he learns or imagines comes from the stories Molly then tells him and from witnessing the creation of Peter’s Malachi Suite, pictures based on a long-forgotten family tragedy that bring Peter a major reputation and some money at last.

Orson is an outsider not just among the Phelans but within the fictional territory Kennedy’s earlier novels claimed so impressively. The “Albany” of those books was a powerfully and closely detailed scene of provincial and ethnic American life during the 1920s and the Depression, and the solidity of their realistic materials tended to obscure the technical subtlety of their management. Very Old Bones seems at first to be almost all technique, sophisticated time-and-perspective games and tricky, self-referring narrative.


Orson might seem, for example, an unlikely interpreter of Albany’s “Broadway,” the crossroads of local pols, bettors, tin-horn sports, gunmen, and ordinary barflies, a world of cunning, nerve, and blarney through which Orson’s cousin Billy Phelan still moves hopefully in the late 1950s, when urban renewal is making it harder and harder to bet a horse, shoot some pool, find a comfortable saloon, or even get arrested. Broadway is “the playground of that part of the soul that is impervious to any form of improvement not associated with chance,” and “playground” seems the right word here. Broadway affords habitués like Billy a free zone for masculine ego in a life otherwise dominated by do-gooders, priests, and female moralists. It bravely claims to know a fraudulent world for what it really is, as a saloon-keeper suggests when a Scout troop parades by on the Fourth of July; a stranger remarks ” ‘What a fine bunch of boys,’ ” but “Sport took his cigar out of his mouth to offer his counterpoint: ‘Another generation of stool pigeons,’ he said.”

Yet free spirits like Billy, in his fifties an unemployable bachelor unable or afraid to marry his mistress of many years, are, as Orson can see, the victims of the stronger if subtler constraints of routine family loyalties and animosities, sexual repression and guilt, the general mutability of things to which illusions of personal freedom are particularly vulnerable. Francis, the athlete ruined by the independence his spirit and grace demand, and Tommy, the middle-aged moron who gets arrested for lifting a woman’s skirt with his cane as he saw Chaplin do in the movies, and is crippled by the beating Sarah gives him for it, show in their own ways the futility of hoping for autonomous satisfactions.

It may take an outsider to see such matters clearly, and the book’s technical intricacies reflect Orson’s learning—or inventing, who can say?—how a story, or history, can be assembled from the fragments of life and feeling that may be available. Early in the book Orson and Billy (his broken ankle in a cast) speak idly of some “elephant” bones recently unearthed near the filtration plant Tommy worked and died at; on Broadway Billy makes what Orson thinks a foolish bet that they are not elephant bones, despite their size and the tusks found with them. At the end Billy confesses that he had previously heard from one of the excavators that they were really the bones of a mastodon, “whatever the hell that is.” In between these moments lies a variety of suggestions that Orson’s memoir is a kind of archaeological dig, and not just metaphorically speaking. He learns, for one thing, that his Aunt Molly, whom he had known until then only as a warm and generous single woman, was married and widowed in the 1930s, that she experienced sexual delight as frank and intense as his own with Giselle, and that she secretly bore a stillborn child before her marriage, whom she named Walter and buried in the cellar of the family house.

Orson and Molly fall in love in a strong though hypothetical way, as surrogates for her dead husband and his absent wife; in a lovely scene, alone at a resort hotel on Saratoga Lake, they dance tenderly together to an old Ray Noble record of “When I Grow Too Old to Dream,” just before she tells him of her dead baby. And just before the funeral of the grim and righteous Sarah, Orson agrees to dig up the child’s remains and conceal them in Sarah’s coffin, so that they may be buried in hallowed ground.

Bones are of course not just physical evidences of the past but relics of its spiritual and emotional content. Other, less literal relics of the past haunt the story: Giselle’s photographs capturing key moments in Orson’s own hard life; his discovery of the dead Tommy’s “treasure,” the under-clothes he bought to give to women whose looks he liked; Molly’s discovery of the scandalous old news stories Sarah had hidden, which inspire Peter’s Malachi paintings; Molly’s revelation of the hoard of goldpieces, given her by a bootlegger’s widow, that has provided many of the family’s little luxuries for three decades.

But the major trove, which Orson gradually uncovers and reveals to us, is the appalling story of Malachi McIlhenny, Kathryn Phelan’s brother, a shanty Irishman who in 1887, crazed by drink, whoring, superstition, and his own general incapacity, tortured and burned to death his young wife Lizzie and buried her naked and mutilated body, in the conviction that she was a witch. Kathryn, then pregnant with Peter, was a helpless witness to this horror, which Peter has recreated with ugly meticulousness in his Malachi Suite paintings.


Art recreates the familial for the Phelans who survive. When Peter gathers them together at lunch in 1958, he gives them the money the Malachi paintings will bring him as well as the future proceeds of his other works. Seeing the pictures teaches them, if not exactly forgiveness, then at least some understanding and compassion for Kathryn, the frigid, repressive matriarch who has so awfully damaged her children. And Peter at last acknowledges Orson, familially and legally, as his “true and only son,” to bear the Phelan name and bequeath it to the child that Giselle is now carrying, whose paternity Orson himself has had some doubts about.

But if Peter has turned history into art, the “truth” of any history is undeterminable, as Orson’s assemblage of the past has continually had to acknowledge. Only in the imagination, perhaps, do biological and emotional relations become fully a family, at best an ambiguous entity with no promise of permanence. Near the end (if 1958 can seem an “end” in 1992) Orson, contemplating his uncertain future with the elusive and perhaps opportunistic Giselle, grants that she at least “was responsible for my being here…and therefore obliquely responsible as well for this day of reunification, this time of our dawning into unity (as Keats put it), if indeed it was unity, if indeed it was dawning.” To imagine the Phelans as a family is to come close to the madness that has dogged his life—his vision of them as members of one body is as a grotesque “skeleton that would have Lizzie’s ribs and fingers, Tommy’s chipped backbone, Francis’s all-but-gangrenous leg with the bone showing, Billy’s broken ankle, Sarah’s near-fleshless arms with bones pushing through skin and with tubes dangling, Peter’s arthritic hips, Walter Phelan’s partial skull.” Not the wholesome family values invoked by politicians, but our possible mutuality in sorrow, guilt, and loss, may be what measures the human worth of kinship, as this complex, eloquent, absorbing novel so powerfully suggests.

Larry McMurtry’s The Evening Star is also a family novel and a sequel to previous work. Here McMurtry returns to the setting and characters of Terms of Endearment (1975), the Houston, Texas, where live Aurora Greenway and her friends and relations. (Some of these characters also appear in the earlier Moving On and All My Friends Are Going To Be Strangers). Aurora is a fairly well-to-do, concupiscent, amply built, self-indulgent, and (we seem asked to believe) splendidly indomitable septuagenarian when the book begins, which is just prior to now, with Gorbachev in power and Lithuania “not looking so good.” (Aurora blames Lithuania’s plight on Harry Truman.) The book ends some forty years from now, when a character who isn’t born until some fifteen or twenty years after it starts reaches his twenty-fourth year, but neither people like Aurora nor novels like this one care to notice temporality very clearly.

Aurora’s family is in grave disarray. Her daughter Emma is dead of cancer and tenderly but seldom remembered, Emma’s deficient husband, Flap, has remarried and now teaches English in California, and their children have succumbed to most of the current threats to traditional family values. Tommy has grown up to be a drug dealer and is now in prison for shooting at a business competitor and killing his (formerly Tommy’s) girlfriend. Teddy, a recovering mental patient, clerks at a 7-Eleven store in the dangerous neighborhood where he lives with Jane, a bisexual with her own psychiatric history; Teddy and Jane, though sometimes suicidal, are also intelligent and well-educated, and the birth of their son Bump offers some hope of future stability. The boys’ little sister Melanie, plump and none too bright, is pregnant and about to run off to LA with her penniless and abusive boyfriend, who hopes to act in pictures.

Aurora worries about these grand-children and occasionally tries to help out, but her energies are largely absorbed by herself and her immediate circle. When not stuffing herself with pie at her favorite eatery, the Pig Stand, she mostly does comic routines with her grouchy but devoted maid Rosie Dunlup, or with her live-in lover of twenty years, General Hector Scott, who at eighty-six isn’t quite up to past performances but consoles himself by flashing to the women of the house. Aurora finds her own consolation in a series of extramural flirtations and affairs, most notably with Pascal, an aging French diplomatist with a bent penis, and with Jerry Bruckner, a wistful and passive young self-taught psychotherapist, who started out as a stand-up comic and then became a concierge.

McMurtry’s Houston is distant from Kennedy’s Albany, that is (though it is oddly close to Gore Vidal’s Duluth). There is no reason to assume that McMurtry doesn’t also see his material as the stuff of soap opera, but its angle of vision is nevertheless hard to figure out. So is the expression of character and condition through language. What do Aurora’s fey speech mannerisms (“no wonder that truck just behind us has such an impatient aspect”) tell us about her? When we hear from off-stage that Rosie “felt she had to take a stoic line on [Tommy’s] tragedy” and then hear Rosie herself say, “‘Them kinds of things just happen to dope dealers,”‘ just where are we linguistically?

The Evening Star is a He-said She-said, She-felt He-felt book, following a resolutely straight line into a future to which can be added anything the author later thinks of. Since it’s also a long book, it needs little jokes to jolly the reader along. There’s the comically revealing verbal slip, as when Aurora tells the jealous General that “I’m having Pascal for dessert” and quickly explains that she means “having him over for dessert.” Or the backspin shocker, as when Rosie feels blue because she’s worried about Melanie and the narrative adds, “besides that, the day before, one of her grandsons had fallen out of a third-floor window and fractured his skull,” or when Rosie regrets Aurora’s lack of interest in her troubles with her current boyfriend and we then hear that “Willie was turning out to have quite a serious downside, one element of which was that he was a heroin addict.”

The Evening Star is a surprisingly lax book. No coherent point of view is ever established. Every character’s mind is accessible to authorial paraphrase that allows no doubts about its accuracy. No mysteries ask to be pondered. No surprises occur, except the unfair ones of our not having guessed what will happen next, and even these are seldom surprising. When Aurora’s hapless therapistlover, who “never know[s] what to say when women ask me about sex,” falls in with a frisky young Mexican illegal alien, we feel sure that whatever happens next won’t be good; in due time her jealous lover kills the pair with a razor. Toward the end, when mention is made of Aurora’s “neighbors and friends,” we wonder why none of the former has appeared in the story; but two pages later a neighbor is contrived for us on the spot, a rich insurance-man widower across the street in River Oaks, who marries Rosie just in time to suffer and feel guilty about the onset of her fatal pancreatic cancer.

At one point Aurora asks Teddy why he looks so sad, and he replies: “It’s not anything in particular…. I guess it’s just life.” It’s exactly the lack of convincing particularity that keeps this novel from achieving much sense of life, anything like the fairly close if noncommittal study of affectless, uprooted people in some of McMurtry’s other books, such as Lonesome Dove and Leaving Cheyenne. What may perhaps be represented here is an author’s boredom with his own most popular creatures, in conflict with his understanding that many people want an easy, undemanding way of killing time while reading about geriatric sex, random violence, and disaster, along with black humor.

There’s nothing reprehensible about killing time—what else can you do with it?—but the positive thinking attached to the novel’s ending seems unearned. The Greenway clan does finally become a family of sorts. Teddy and Jane stay together and reasonably sane, and they even have a second child. Tommy gets out of Huntsville, marries Jane’s old Bryn Mawr roommate, starts a lucrative computer service business with Teddy, and has a son of his own. After a small career as an actress, Melanie finds success as a stage director. A stroke leaves Aurora speechless, but she lives on to reach ninety and achieve her first satisfying relationship with a male, Tommy’s infant son Henry, whom she “teaches music” by playing classical cds at full volume while he crawls over her in her bed. In the last episode, around the year 2030, an adult Henry hears the Brahms Requiem, her last lesson to him, and is obscurely moved, though he does not know why. Traditional family values, as this year’s politicians seem to be insisting, may be hard to destroy utterly no matter what we do, at least in some kinds of fiction.

This Issue

August 13, 1992