With "Quinn's Book," William Kennedy moves from the gritty realism of "Ironweed" and the other two books in his Albany trilogy into what might be called the Hudson River School of historical myth.
Like Mark Helprin's "Winter's Tale," George Trow's "The Empire City" and T. Coraghessan Boyle's "World's End," "Quinn's Book" elevates portions or approximations of New York history--Dutch, English, Irish--into legend. The purpose is not simply to tell or invent tales of the past but to create ghosts to haunt and enliven our sadly ghost-starved present.
Set in the middle of the 19th Century, it takes Daniel Quinn, a river urchin, into adulthood and through a variegated world of high- and lowlife: patroon descendants, itinerant theater artists, sinister cabals of financiers, rambunctious journalists, the Civil War and the violent local warfare between Irish immigrants and know-nothing anti-immigrant gangs.
It is done in lavish extremes of incident and style. There are hints of the phantasmagoric in the tall stories that Daniel lives through. They are a pastiche of melodramatic romance and high-flown language; they suggest both the penny-dreadful narrative style of the period and the ironic undertone that darkens the high colors of contemporary magic realism.
Right at the start, for instance, the sexy traveling diva, Magdalena Colon, chooses the most perilous way to cross the ice-choked Hudson to get to an engagement in Troy. Instead of taking a longer, but safer, route, she hires a skiff. "Recklessness," Kennedy writes, "was far likelier to send the shiver of lust through the spines of men, fire envy in the livers of their wives and daughters, and set tongues to gossipaceous clacking that would pack the hall. . . ."
It is flamboyant and knowing at the same time, this kind of writing. It is a fancy-dress masquerade party where a sardonic contemporary eye winks over an old-fashioned mask. The reader is called upon to make a series of quick reverses; surrendering to the theatrics while noting the up-to-date electronics of the lighting board and the scenery lift.
Kennedy has fun with these tricky switches, and so do we; but he doesn't quite master them. He moves in inspired spurts for a while, then dries up, beaching us. Daniel's adventures are captivating at times; at others, they seem to march in place, awaiting instruction.
The beginning goes very well. Magdalena's skiff is upset by an ice floe; John the Brawn, master of another skiff, pulls her from the water, apparently drowned. Meanwhile, John's helper, the 13-year-old Daniel, rescues Maud, the 12-year-old child who is traveling with Magdalena.
It is a rescue amid a wild general catastrophe. A bridge packed with spectators collapses. A 60-foot ice wall breaks, releasing the pent-up river waters, flooding Albany, drowning hundreds and setting a lime works on fire. The fire destroys what the flood hasn't.
Meanwhile Maud, a magical sprite, takes charge of her immediate circle. Introducing herself as the daughter of the mistress of the exiled King of Bavaria, she announces that Magdalena is her aunt and "vastly superior to Mother as a human being." She directs the party--John, Daniel and the body of Magdalena, from whose cheek a bereaved and enraged bystander has just taken a large bite--to the mansion of the wealthy Hillegond Staats, widow of a descendant of merchants and patroons.
Then, in short order, John makes love simultaneously to Hillegond and to the corpse of Magdalena, which promptly reconstitutes itself and comes to life. A runaway slave is discovered in the family tomb. The body of a Staats forebear, exposed to the air, explodes. Maud kisses Daniel passionately, claims him for when they are both old enough, and declares: "I love only Daniel Quinn and I want to give him half or more of my life." To which Quinn, narrating all this years afterwards, reflects: "Was ever a more precisely self-apportioning line uttered by woman?"
This mixture of extravagant incident and dry wit keeps the book, in its best moments, in a state of provocative imbalance. After the beginning, though, the extravagance lurches along with varying success, and the wit flickers on and off.
An account of the family history of Hillegond's patroon connections is thin, and the story of the successive generations lacks contrast or the kind of richness that Boyle brought to his "World's End." A subplot involving the bloody workings of a corrupt league of capitalists, known as the Society, is spectacular but halfhearted.
Kennedy is much better describing the hand-to-mouth existence of Daniel in the Albany slums (Magdalena and John abandon him, taking Maud with them). An account of a cholera plague is brief but chilling. Best of all is his description of the Irish immigrants battling a local American gang that has been persecuting them.