Jefferson Chase on William Kennedy's early novel about the struggle for survival in Depression-era New York
You can usually tell from a novel’s first scene whether it is going to be any good. Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game, by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Irish- American author William Kennedy starts with a game of bowling, played for money in Depression-era Albany, New York. The eponymous hero has 11 strikes on the trot and needs only one more for a perfect score of 300. But his opponent breaks the rules of superstition etiquette by mentioning the streak while it is ongoing. In the 12th frame, Billy Phelan leaves one pin standing. Two hundred and ninety-nine. Still, Phelan is better off than his adversary, who dies of a heart attack in the ensuing row over his misconduct.Near-greatness is one main theme in this early work by Kennedy, published in 1978. Its characters are two-bit gamblers trying to make enough money to pay the rent and preserve a bit of dignity in the process. The third-person narrator Martin Daugherty muses of the hero:Billy’s best game was pool, but he’d never be anything like a national champ at that either, didn’t think that way, didn’t have the need that comes with obsessive specialisation. Billy roamed through the grandness of all games, yeoman here, journeyman there, low-level maestro unlikely to transcend … He was a champion drinker who could go for three days on the sauce and not yield to sleep, a double-twenty specialist on the dart board, a chancy small-time bookie, and so on and so on and so on, so why, Martin Daugherty are you so obsessed with Billy Phelan? Why make a heroic picaro out of a simple chump?Phelan is pure Albany – a far cry short of true excellence, but for precisely that reason down-to-earth, likeable and sympathetic. So too are his regular drinks: locally brewed beers, Old Granddad and Johnnie Walker from an ex-bootlegger’s bathtub.But Billy’s got troubles. When the son of the McCalls, Albany’s ruling family of corrupt politicians, is kidnapped, Billy has a choice. He can spy on a friend and be blackballed as a rat from the network of bars and pool halls where he plies his trades. Or he can refuse, in which case the McCalls will have him blackballed just the same. Billy refuses. This takes him down to the river with a bottle in his hand and thoughts of suicide in his head:He edged himself upward on the bank, away from the voices, and took a drink of whiskey. He was still drunk and he had a headache. He was out of focus with the world and yet he was more coherent than he had been since this whole business began. He knew precisely how it was before the kidnapping and how it was different now, and he didn’t give a shit. You think Billy Phelan gives a shit about asskissers and phonies? … Maybe they thought if he got shut out of a joint like Becker’s, he’d pack his bag and hop a freight. But his old man did that, and all he got was drunk.The novel’s other main theme is rules, the codes of honour in the male communities that inhabit the twilight sides of town, and the structures of power that control Tammany Hall America. Everybody likes and admires Billy Phelan, and no one is willing to back him up against the McCalls.Phelan is saved in the end by Daugherty, who has Damon Runyan, America’s most powerful journalist, write an article that leads to his return to good grace. The reconciliation takes place in a bar:“What’re you drinking, Billy?” Red Tom asked.
“You still sellin’ Scotch?”
“A small one, with water.”
“On the house,” Red Tom said, setting the drink down in front of Billy.
“Times certainly do change,” Billy said.The hero knows that that’s all the apology he’s going to get. The humour here is Irish, but the hard-edged acceptance of dog-eat-dog capitalism is particularly American. The dialogue is the strongest aspect of Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game; in the narration, Kennedy’s fondness for Joycean mannerisms sometimes irritates. The novel itself mirrors a score of 299 in bowling – an imperfect result, but a damn fine effort that commands the audience’s attention and just narrowly escapes being truly great. Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game and William Kennedy’s other works are published by Penguin Books
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