D.A.N. Jones

  • Ironweed by William Kennedy
    Viking, 227 pp, £7.95, September 1984, ISBN 0 670 40176 5
  • In Custody by Anita Desai
    Heinemann, 204 pp, £9.95, October 1984, ISBN 0 434 18635 X
  • Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes
    Cape, 190 pp, £8.50, October 1984, ISBN 0 241 11374 1

These novels, all in the literary-prize-winning league, tell us of areas with which we are probably unfamiliar. William Kennedy’s Ironweed is about Albany, capital of the State of New York. Julian Barnes writes about the France of Gustave Flaubert, as discussed in an irrational, pedantic manner by a British admirer of Flaubert’s work. Anita Desai, daughter of a German mother and a Bengali father, writes about the world of Indian poets, a very male (not macho) group devoted to the Urdu language as it struggles against ‘that vegetarian monster, Hindi’. This novel, In Custody, is for me the least ‘foreign’, the least ‘alien’: it is Commonwealth literature, pertinent to Wales and Africa and the West Indies.

Ironweed is more exotic. Many Londoners have visited New York City, but what do we know of Albany? The citizens of Manhattan may tell us that Albany is a square, conservative place, snobbish about its Dutch origins and its tulip festival, and named after our least successful king, James II, when he was Duke of York and Albany. One year, when I told friends in Manhattan that I was going to Albany to hear the hippy, marijuana-influenced poems of a Londoner who was living with another poet, half-Negro and half-Cherokee, the New York City people seemed annoyed, feeling that Albany was not supposed to be hippy. Towns get labelled: William Kennedy, in his fifties now, has at last persuaded the literary world of New York City that Albany is not merely a stodgy block of municipal offices but also a wild Irish town. Ironweed has won the Pulitzer Prize, after being rejected by 13 publishers.

Saul Bellow urged the Viking Press to publish it, since he admired Kennedy’s other Albany novels, Legs and Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game: both these books have now been re-published as Penguin paperbacks.[*] The first is about the Albany gangster, Jack ‘Legs’ Diamond; the second is about a poker-player and pool hustler called Billy Phelan, who meets his long-lost father, Francis, toward the end of the book. The old man looks like ‘Pete the Tramp without a hat, without the spiky moustache, without the comedy’. Billy asks Francis: ‘What happened to your finger?’ The father replies: ‘Some wine bum went nuts and chopped it off. Tried to cut my feet off with a cleaver, but all he got was a piece of the finger ... He wanted my shoes. I had good-lookin’ shoes on and he didn’t have none.’ Later on, Billy hears how Francis once killed a man during a trolley strike. ‘We were 12, 14, like that,’ says one of Francis’s friends, ‘and your father was seven or eight years older and on strike. But we hated the scabs as much as he did and we all had stones of our own. Any one of us might have done what he did, but your father had that ball-player’s arm.’ Francis’s stone ‘flew out of his fist like a bullet and caught the scab driver on the head ... The cops didn’t care about catching your father, of course. They were all with the strikers. But the Traction Company bosses forced them into a manhunt, and so we all knew your father couldn’t go back home for a while.’ Francis did eventually return to Albany and stayed for 15 years. ‘Yeah,’ Billy said. ‘He stayed until he killed somebody else.’

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[*] Legs (317 pp., £2.95, 27 September, 0 14 00 6484 2. Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game (282 pp., £2.95, 27 September, 0 14 00 6340 4).