Academic journal article
By Michener, Christian
Papers on Language & Literature , Vol. 31, No. 4
The title of William Kennedy's third novel, Billy Phelan's Greatest Game (1978),(1) refers on the one hand to a simple bowling game, at which the good-natured Albany hustler and gambler Billy Phelan rolls a 299. But the "greatest game" of the title also refers to life itself and how Billy Phelan plays it--specifically, how he handles himself in 1938 when an acquaintance of his is kidnapped. The victim of this kidnapping, Charlie Boy McCall, is the adult son of the McCall family who controls Albany politics and, consequently, the life of thirty-year-old Billy Phelan, who as a small-time gambler must abide by the McCall rules if he is to work in Albany.(2) As it turns out, one of the primary suspects of the kidnapping is also an acquaintance of Billy's (and Charlie Boy's) named Morrie Berman. Yet despite Billy's acquaintance with Morrie and with Charlie Boy, and despite the fact that the McCalls control Billy's business, Billy himself is hesitant to try to uncover what Morrie knows about the kidnapping and report on what he says, a task the McCalls ask him to do. Billy feels that such spying, despite the many arguments justifying it, violates his personal code of behavior, a code which includes his refusal to be a"squealer" (198) and to cheat against friends: like any game, friendships also have rules, and for Billy these rules cannot be broken.
Even though the plot of Billy Phelan's Greatest Game pursues this conflict between Billy's desire to remain true to his code and the McCalls's growing pressure on Billy to find out what he can about the kidnapping, and despite the implication of the title of the novel that we are to focus on Billy, it is yet another of Billy's acquaintances, Martin Daugherty, who surfaces by novel's end to be as responsible for the outcome of the "game" Billy is playing as Billy himself.(3) A look at Martin Daugherty, then, can shed as much light on Kennedy's novel as a study of Billy Phelan himself would. Billy's role in the various affairs surrounding Charlie Boy's kidnapping is crucial to the plot but it is also primarily passive; most of his energy is spent trying to avoid confrontation with the McCalls, an effort at which he eventually fails when the McCalls announce that Billy is persona non "rata in Albany and effectively destroy his livelihood. Martin Daugherty, on the other hand, actively involves himself first in his own personal crises and then in Billy's problems, including the kidnapping itself.
Part of the reason for Martin's involvement in Billy's affairs is due to his natural curiosity and professional duty as an Albany journalist. But the true motivation Martin has for worrying over Billy derives from the fact that Martin is a former neighbor of Billy's father (the Francis Phelan of Ironweed fame)(4) and, more importantly, from Martin's paternal affection for Billy himself. This affection in turn derives from the family situations in which both Billy and Martin find themselves. Martin sympathizes with Billy because both men are "separated" from their fathers: Francis Phelan left Billy and the rest of the family twenty-two years earlier, and Edward Daugherty, Martin's father, lived as a self-obsessed artist rather than an attentive parent. In addition, Martin also sees Billy as a possible substitute for his own son, Peter, from whom Martin himself is alienated. During the several days in which Charlie Boy is held prisoner, Martin in effect adopts Billy, serving as a replacement father--and using Billy as a replacement son--much as Leopold Bloom (another journalist) watched over Stephen Dedalus in 1904 Dublin.(5)
Although Martin's concern for Billy Phelan is sincere, it is not at first sufficient to push Martin into doing much for Billy in the young man's predicament with the McCalls. For much of the novel, Martin worries over Billy, but he does not act. Like the journalist that he is, Martin observes and comments rather than acts or interferes. Martin's concern for Billy is also mitigated by the very source of that concern, namely his uneasy relationships with both his father and his son. …