18 February 2013

William Kennedy: Billy Phelan's Greatest Game (1978)

Billy Phelan's Greatest Game is the middle novel of William Kennedy's Albany trilogy, between Legs and Ironweed, and one of what Saul Bellow described as 'a distinguished group of books'. This is set in 1938 and most of it is seen through the viewpoint of the young eponymous hero, although less frequently from the point of view of Martin Daugherty, a fifty-year-old reporter.
This is a world of bars, pool halls, gambling dens, the occasional brothel and flop house, of dog-eat-dog, easy friendships, people as thick as thieves, easy money, easier women, life in the fast lane. It's the kind of novel that reeks of testosterone, filled with sports and gangster argot that isn't always easy to understand as it's probably archaic. Who talks about a 'double sawbuck' (twenty bucks) these days, for example?
I had the feeling, with the kidnapping theme, the bodies and the general cheapness of life, the heavy drinking and lack of women apart from mainly shadowy background figures, that I'd stumbled in on an essentially male preserve, like a party to which I'd not been invited, and where I no doubt wasn't welcome. Still, I stayed the course, although I don't think I want to read another of Kennedy's novels for a while.

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