Memory and Hearsay: Ethnic History and Identity in 'Billy Phelan's Greatest Game' and 'Ironweed.' (Irish-American Literature)

Article excerpt

"I write this book... as a person whose imagination has become fused with a single place." The opening words of O, Albany!, William Kennedy's "urban biography" of Albany, prepare the reader for a richly detailed rendering of the history of a place where history is inseparable from "memory and hearsay" (371). Weaving together his own memories with those of other individuals as well as drawing upon historical documents, Kennedy seeks to "peer into the heart of [Albany's] always-shifting past" (7). As in his fiction, he closely ties historical memory to place in a manner that headily mixes nostalgia and political insight. Kennedy finds much to celebrate in his study of Albany's history and its people, and the multitude of reminiscences and anecdotes lends a nostalgic sheen to the text. But he does not uncritically venerate the city, and in his use of oral histories, he is clearly attuned to both the blindnesses and insights of reminiscence and anecdote, of "memory and hearsay," in the retelling of an ethnic past. In his urban biography of Albany and in his Albany novels - Legs, Billy Phelan's Greatest Game, Ironweed, and Quinn's Book - he allows memory and hearsay to permeate the boundaries of conventional historical narrative.(1) In doing so he explores not only the most visible contours of Irish-American history, such as machine politics, but also the everyday encodings of ethnic identity and distinctiveness.

In exploring what constitutes Irish-Americanness, Kennedy shows a keen interest in how the ethnic group uses (selects and interprets) history and reinvents the past in the process of self-definition. Ethnicity is not represented as a fixed psychological or socio-cultural entity in his texts, but rather as a dynamic process of identity formation - in which memory plays a significant role - implicated in specific material and political realities. I want to look closely at two of the Albany novels, Billy and Ironweed, as they depict the struggles of Irish-Americans to make sense of this process. Kennedy has produced what is often termed a "cycle" of Albany novels, documenting and expanding genealogies from novel to novel, constructing an intimate fictional and historical tableau of Albany life. In focusing on Billy and Ironweed I have selected the two novels most closely connected in terms of character, event, theme and temporal setting. The action of both texts takes place during a few days in October 1938, the former focused on Billy Phelan, a small-time hustler, and the latter on his father Francis, who has been "on the bum" for twenty-two years. As both characters in their different ways traverse the seamier areas of Albany they face personal dilemmas that force them to examine their ethnic identities and values.

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In Billy, Billy Phelan, "forged in the brass of Broadway" (8), is at home in the world of nighttime Albany - pool rooms, poker dens and bars - where he survives on his street-tested skills and wits. It is a world that is harshly turned against him when he is caught up in the kidnapping of Charlie McCall, son of Patsy McCall, who is the city's political boss.(2) Refusing to "inform" on a friend suspected by the McCalls of involvement in the kidnapping, Billy finds Albany nightlife closed to him as the McCalls have him "marked lousy" (239), displaying their power "to control everybody's life, right down to the lowly hustler on the street" (Bonetti 75). What Kennedy terms the "absolutism" of this power and its history is something his protagonist is only dimly aware of. As Billy walks along Colonie Street where he grew up and the McCalls still live, Kennedy blends Billy's memories with fragments of social history that trace the evolution of political power from the founding of "The Colonie" (after which the street has been named) in 1630 by the Dutch merchant, Kiliaen Van Resselaer, "who was also known as the First Patroon" (145), to the Irish of the early twentieth century who "with the help of Jesus, and by dint of numbering forty per cent of the city's population" (147) gain control. …