Whisky Magazine Issue 28
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Jefferson Chase on William Kennedy's early novel about the struggle for survival in Depression-era New York
You can usually tell from a novel's first scene whether it is going to be any good. Billy Phelan's Greatest Game, by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Irish- American author William Kennedy starts with a game of bowling, played for money in Depression-era Albany, New York. The eponymous hero has 11 strikes on the trot and needs only one more for a perfect score of 300. But his opponent breaks the rules of superstition etiquette by mentioning the streak while it is ongoing. In the 12th frame, Billy Phelan leaves one pin standing. Two hundred and ninety-nine. Still, Phelan is better off than his adversary, who dies of a heart attack in the ensuing row over his misconduct.
Near-greatness is one main theme in this early work by Kennedy, published in 1978. Its characters are two-bit gamblers trying to make enough money to pay the rent and preserve a bit of dignity in the process. The third-person narrator Martin Daugherty muses of the hero:
Billy's best game was pool, but he'd never be anything like a national champ at that either, didn't think that way, didn't have the need that comes with obsessive specialisation. Billy roamed through the grandness of all games, yeoman here, journeyman there, low-level maestro unlikely to transcend … He was a champion drinker who could go for three days on the sauce and not yield to sleep, a double-twenty specialist on the dart board, a chancy small-time bookie, and so on and so on and so on, so why, Martin Daugherty are you so obsessed with Billy...