(Editor’s note: This is the 119th installment of our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s pick comes from Steven Nester, the host of Poets of the Tabloid Murder, a weekly Internet radio show heard on the Public Radio Exchange [PRX]. Texas resident Nester, who has been interviewing mystery-fiction authors since 1998, also wrote recently on this page about another “forgotten book,” Nick Tosches’ Cut Numbers.)
Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game (1978) is the second book in William Kennedy’s renowned cycle of novels set in Albany, New York, during the Great Depression; and in terms of action, it’s quite probably the best entry in that entire series. The bones of this book are those of a crime novel, describing the events surrounding an underworld kidnapping. But for readers who like to don their thinking caps, Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game is also a dialectic on fathers and sons, a love song to an Albany long gone, and a discourse on the perennial hard-boiled theme of how a man must maintain and live by his personal code no matter what peril it presents.
Billy Phelan is a young hustler and gambler who makes his living on the “easy action, gravy vested sporting mob” of Albany’s pool halls, card rooms, and gambling dens. Anyone who wants a piece of this action must first be OK’ed by the McCall family, the political and criminal power in town. In a world where Darwin and gangsters meet and run amok, players who don’t look out for themselves quickly become somebody else’s sucker--the lifeblood of professionals like Billy who make their living among the demimonde. It’s made clear that suckers don’t fare well in the Albany of 1938. As one character, a bloated, drunken sage of the pool room states, “a sucker don’t get even until he gets to Heaven.”
Everybody knows the rules the McCalls have set down, and anyone brazen or stupid enough to run afoul of them is banned from the city’s bars and clubs and revoked of their privilege to make book. The stories of those who dared to ignore the McCalls are known to all; they hang in the beer- and cigarette-soured air like bodies hanging at a crossroads.
Billy, though, is a well-liked and hard-working hustler. He always pays his debts, never cheats, and votes the party line. But his personal ethics are tested when Charlie McCall, his boyhood friend and the heir apparent to the McCall political machine and graft empire, is kidnapped and held for ransom.
Billy is drawn into the drama when the McCalls discover that a pimp and gambler named Morrie Berman might be involved. It just so happened that Berman backed Billy in a bowling match the night Charlie was grabbed. Billy’s opponent was supported by Charlie McCall. At the request of the McCalls, Billy stays close to Berman in order to inform them of his actions. He does so reluctantly, and not for long. Billy sees himself as a fink, and this grates on his personal code of honor.
Although he does give information that eventually aids the McCalls in rescuing Charlie, Billy tells the family that he refuses to spy on Berman any longer, and is consequently cast out from the bars and clubs where he makes his living. Throughout all of this, Billy is watched and guided by newspaper columnist Martin Daugherty. Redemption eventually comes through the intervention of a Daugherty newspaper column whose sole audience is the McCalls, and Billy is back in the action.
Damon Runyon might have been the ideal storyteller for this type of fiction. Kennedy, on the other hand, nurtures no fedora fetish, nor does he attempt to re-create Runyon’s overwrought prose style, which would only sound as dated and lumbering as the original does today. (Kennedy does, though, channel the bard of Prohibition Broadway just briefly in Billy Phelan). There’s really no need for literary replication, because Kennedy is too good a writer.
Billy Phelan has few noirish tendencies; the prose is more poetical than economically driven tough-guy shorthand and the players have none of the world-weary nihilism expected in noir. The Albany these characters live in is bound by family and tradition and Catholicism (there hasn’t been this much Catholicism in a crime novel since John Gregory Dunne’s True Confessions), and the book exhibits none of the rootlessness associated with noir novels written in and of this time period. There is nothing hopeless or bleak here, except the fate of those who refuse to play by the rules of the McCall family.
(Left) Author William Kennedy
The ruminations of fathers and sons appear heavily in Billy Phelan, and the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac is invoked several times. The sins of the fathers play out in the lives of the sons as well: the criminality of the McCalls visits Charlie as a victim; newspaperman Daugherty has an affair with his enfeebled literati father’s ex-lover, and his teenage son, Peter, leaves home to join the seminary; the criminal Morrie Berman is at odds with his labor lawyer and activist father. And then there’s Billy Phelan. His willful disobedience of the McCalls and the resulting banishment from his sustenance is emphasized by the reappearance of his vagabond father, who deserted the family decades before, after causing the accidental death of Billy’s younger brother. Of the complicated relationship between fathers and sons, Kennedy says, “There’s no Santa Claus and there’s no devil. Your father’s both.”
Kennedy does present reveries to the wonders of nighttime Albany in its heyday, though not enough to provoke dizziness in his readers. While the sense of place is well drawn and populated, the city of Albany--like Chandler’s Los Angeles or Hammett’s San Francisco--is a character, with a role that’s secondary but still salient.
But fear not: Billy Phelan isn’t all literature class. Kennedy knows enough to crack wise and pepper his prose with smart-aleck observations and felicities. Of the office flirt, for instance, he declares: “Coquettes of the world disband; you’ve nothing to gain but saliva.” And of his chunky wife, he observes that “screwing your wife was like striking out the pitcher.”
Of the many historical crime novels available today, Billy Phalen’s Greatest Game is perhaps one of the best. Kennedy’s other seven books in the Albany Cycle are well worth the reading, as well, especially the first, Legs (1975), about the rise and fall and murder in Albany during the time of the notorious gangster, Jack “Legs” Diamond.