There has to be something mad and wonderful in store in any novel that begins with a guy getting bowled to death. That’s how William Kennedy kicks off Billy Phalens Greatest Game, and this study of Depession-era nightlife is a joy for anyone who loves to inhale sharp dialogue and great characters.
Kennedy’s evocation of 1938 Albany is of a city of cards and pool, fast women, and smoky, pissy-smelling bars. That’s Billy Phalens world, and it’s one he occupies comfortably. When the son of one of the members of Albany’s powerful McCall family gets kidnapped, however, the screws tighten up. Billy gets approached by the the McCalls as a potential mediator/snitch, and the novel follows him over the course of a couple of weeks while the drama plays out. Despite the seedy crowd he hangs with, Billy has a personal code – You pay your bets, you don’t cheat, and you don’t fink.
Hanging around the edges of the story is Billy’s father Francis, a onetime star baseball player who has dropped out of society due to a couple of tragic events in his past. Francis Phalen (The central character of Kennedy’s Ironweed) is only a peripheral character in Greatest Game, but his story, packed full of melancholy and numbing pain is a touchstone for many of Kennedy’s Albany novels.
It’s not an easy task to pick out an excerpt from a Kennedy novel, but I chose this rambling travelogue of Albany nightlife, written by a man who knows these streets well.
Now 1913 was gone, too, but Billy was gliding down Broadway in a craft of his own making, and he relished the sight. There was Albany’s river of bright white lights, the lights on in the famous Lunch, still en, and the dark, smoky reds of Brockley’s and Becker’s neon tubes, and the tubes also shaping the point over the door of the American hotel, and the window of Louis’s pool room lit up, where someone 3as still getting some action, and the light on in the Waldorf restaurant, where the pimps worked out of and where you could get a baked apple right now if you needed one, and the lights of the Cadillac cafeteria with the pretty great custard pie, and the lights on in the upper rooms of the Cadillac hotel, where the Greek card game was going on and where Broadway Frances was probably turning a customer upside down and inside out, pretty , tough, busy, knobby lady and Billy’s old friend, and the lights in the stairways to the Monte Carlo, where the action would go on until everybody ran out of money or steam, and the lights, too, in Chief Humphrey’s private detective office, the chief working late on somebody’s busted marriage, and the light in the back of red’s barbershop coming through a crack in the door, and Billy knew that red and others were in there playing blackjack. And look there, too, buddy boy: The lights are on in Bill’s Magic shop, where Bill is staying late, hoping to sell a deck of cards or a pair of dice or a punch board or a magic wand to some nighthawk in search or transport, and the lights are on, too, in Bradt’s drug store, where Billy does all his cundrum business.