The Flaming Corsage

Robert Spillman reviews the novel "The Flaming Corsage" by William Kennedy.

Published May 20, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

"The Flaming Corsage," the sixth in Kennedy's ambitious Albany Cycle of novels (which includes "Legs," "Billy Phelan's Greatest Game," and the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Ironweed"), is set in turn-of-the-century Albany, New York, where lower class Irish immigrants carved out space among the long-established British. Edward Dougherty, "some kind of new being with no known habitat," is the son of an Irish foundry worker, but is given an education by Lyman Fitzgibbon, a wealthy landowner whom Edward's father had once saved from an angry rural mob.

Edward, who feels like an alien in both worlds, uses his education to make himself into a writer, first as a reporter, then as a novelist and successful playwright, chronicling his own life and that of laboring Irish immigrants. When he falls in love with Lyman's granddaughter Katrina Taylor, a luminous death-obsessed "modern" woman who devours the poetry of Baudelaire, both families disapprove. The Doughertys think it "traitorous" to marry the daughter of a man who had busted Irish unions, while the Taylors believe that Edward, for all his refinement and education, is far below Katrina's station.

Also working against the couple is Edward's alter-ego, a whoremongering reporter named Maginn who revels in telling his old friend Edward that he will always be "a mudhole mick from the North End." After Edward's social and artistic successes, Maginn jealously conspires to pull him back into the mud. Katrina and Edward marry nevertheless and struggle against the grain of their doomed union.

This is an old story, yet one that really sings, thanks to Kennedy's passionately poetic prose, his precise and judicious use of historical detail, and his steeping the story with the weight of the grim history of the Irish. The characters are sharply drawn and the philosophical questions raised are complex and intriguing. "The Flaming Corsage" is a powerful, compact and timeless novel by an accomplished artist writing at his best.

By Robert Spillman

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