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A Rough and Ready Romeo and Juliet : FICTION : THE FLAMING CORSAGE. By William Kennedy (Viking: $23.95, 209 pp.)

July 14, 1996|Lisa Meyer | Lisa Meyer is a writer living in Princeton, N.J., who is working on a collection of interviews with writers entitled "Literary Mirrors."

The end of a century often evokes images of the end of time. In the face of such an imagined apocalypse, some people begin to change, questioning the ways in which they have lived. Others are adamant about staying the same. In the turmoil, new categories are born.

In his new novel, "The Flaming Corsage," William Kennedy appropriately chooses the turn of the 20th century as the setting for his exploration of people who stand on thresholds. His two main characters don't fit into traditional categories. They stand on doorsills because society has no room for them.

Katrina Taylor's sexual passions push her from the constrictions of turn-of-the-century feminine etiquette, and Edward Daugherty's privileged education and artistic talent lift him out of the working class, but not quite into the upper class. In both cases, their freedom challenges the permanency of society's gender and class divisions.

Like all of Kennedy's novels, "The Flaming Corsage" takes place in Albany, N.Y. The book expands on a story that appeared in two of Kennedy's earlier novels, "Billy Phelan's Greatest Game" and his Pulitzer Prize-winning "Ironweed." Like William Faulkner, Kennedy has created a fictional world that he reenters at a different angle with each new work. His themes, however, remain the same. In this, his seventh novel, Kennedy once again dissects human vice, bigotry, politics, sexual desire and survival. His fiction never fails to engage both our emotions and our minds.

"The Flaming Corsage" opens with an apocalypse, a murder-suicide dubbed the "Love Nest Killings"--a 1908 scandal of sex, jealousy and revenge. The narrative is a hodgepodge of different times, mediums and points of view that revolve around this incident. As Kennedy allows us to learn why a man shoots his wife and her lover and then kills himself, we investigate the ways in which people are trapped inside their societies.

On a basic level, "The Flaming Corsage" is Kennedy's rendition of Romeo and Juliet. Societies are built on rules, and, by marrying, Katrina and Edward break the laws governing their respective worlds. Katrina is born into a patrician Dutch family, while Edward is the son of working-class immigrants. Neither set of parents wants them to marry.

Tensions rise when Edward risks the stability of his marriage to Katrina for the sake of his art. He writes a play parodying Katrina's father, and she and her father take offense. Ultimately rebuffed by his wife, Edward takes a lover.

Meanwhile, he must defend himself against an old friend's revenge. As a boy, Edward had a benefactor; his father's rich employer brought Edward into his house and enrolled him in the town's best school. As a young man, Edward left newspaper reporting to become a playwright. Born in the poor section of town, Edward now lives among the rich. But unlike Edward, his friend Thomas Magnin can't escape the working class.

Thomas envies Edward's money, marriage and success. A newspaper reporter and whore master, he could be seen as Edward's dispossessed brother. In Kennedy's world, a man's social position is defined by the type of women with whom he can publicly claim to have had sex. So Thomas, enacting his own poetic justice, uses women as his weapons in a vengeful attack on Edward.

In "The Flaming Corsage," Kennedy highlights the turn-of-the-century conventions that forced women to base their self-worth solely on their sexual appeal. Yet he seems to offer an exception in Katrina's case: She is not only beautiful but also fiercely independent and intelligent. Sexual desire is her religion: "I do what I think I should do, so I can become what I feel I must be," she says.

Such a value system both sustains and destroys her, as well as those she loves. Living as if each day is her last, Katrina is a seraph and a voluptuary--a hybrid that transcends both the everyday world and the divine. Yet her power lacks application in the everyday world, reinforcing the social pigeonhole for women that Kennedy lays bare.

"The Flaming Corsage" explores both the perpetuation and the transcendence of classism and sexism as well as how those two "isms" intersect. The novel also suggests that art is an "ism." Edward writes plays in a futile effort to give meaning to his life. His play "The Flaming Corsage" is a neat version of his chaotic relationship with Katrina, and Kennedy's novel portrays this chaos. At the end, however, we don't know just how the murder-suicide came about. Lies mix with truths to create a murky reality.

And that's the difference between art and life, Kennedy suggests. While Edward's play has a resolution, there is something unresolved in this novel, as there is in life, in language and in characters who stand on thresholds of great change. Kennedy brilliantly captures one of these moments. Mystery breeds vitality, and "The Flaming Corsage" is a complex and engaging puzzle. It refuses to be solved.

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