This new novel from the author of Pulitzer prize-winning "Ironweed" begins in 1849 and covers many aspects of American history including civil war, anti-slavery plots, and small-town corruption. William Kennedy has also written "Legs", "Billy Phelan's Greatest Game", and "The Albany Cycle" as well as the screenplay for the film "The Cotton Club".
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Here, Kennedy happily charges straight into the precincts of magic realism, a change certainly from his Albany hooks of grandiloquent naturalism. The style is if anything more rococo, and Albany still tethers the story - but the time is the era of the Civil War, and in short order the book begins with the folkloric drowning of a scandalous dancer in the icy Hudson, her reincarnation (thanks tit some good-hearted necrophilia), a cholera epidemic, and the orphan narrator's much postponed chivalric quest for a beautiful maid. Daniel Quinn, the teller of the tale, will go on to uncover a conspiracy of the aristos, to write memorable Civil War journalism, to be on hand at epochal prizefights and at the opening day of Saratoga Race Track - but it is his fealty to and ardor for Maud Fallon (niece of the aforementioned music-hall dancer revived front the dead by eros) that remains his first focus. The opening pages are splendid, bright with inventiveness, period decorative prose, and what Kennedy does best: suggesting an element of almost racial memory to the stories he puts forth. But minus that and the equally fine comic ending (Magdalena the dancer's this-time-for-real wake - which, ever slippery, she attends alive, not to be denied the amusement), everything else hangs without binding threads, set pieces propped up by rhetorical flourish and not ranch else ("And in such privileged moments, his life became a great canvas of the imagination, large enough to suggest the true magnitude of the unknown. What he saw on the canvas was a boundless freedom to do and to think and to feel all things offered to the living. In Maud's presence, or even in waiting for her to arrive, the canvas became unbearably valuable and utterly mysterious. and he knew if he lost Maud he would explode into simplicity"). The element of styrofoam to such easy parallelisms and wide-flung oration makes the book too often far less weighty than it otherwise might have been. Exhilarating for the first 50 pages or so - then skillful and zesty but unconvincing. (Kirkus Reviews)