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William Kennedy: Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game

We will meet the great baseball player, Francis Phelan, in Kennedy’s next novel but this story is about his son, Billy. His greatest game is not in baseball but in bowling. He is playing against Scotty Streck, a champion bowler. Billy’s average was 185 while Scotty’s was 206 (he lived with his bowling ball as if it were a third testicle, Kennedy so succinctly puts it). Billy had therefore asked for a twenty-one spot but Scotty has offered him fifty-five for three matches and Billy had accepted for a five dollar bet. Scotty won the first two but in the third Billy is heading for a perfect game. He almost makes it.

But this book is not about this game but about Billy as a player. He is a bookie, a small-time gambler and, as we have seen, a player both in the narrow sense of playing a specific game but also in the broader sense of playing in his life. We see him in involved in various games, such as pool and poker, The key event comes against the background of Albany politics. Kennedy had been a reporter and, as such, had reported on the O’Connell machine which is thinly disguised in this novel as the McCalls. We see numerous examples of the power of the McCalls in this novel but we see it in particular when Charlie McCall is kidnapped and Billy is unwittingly involved, as the McCalls suspect Morrie Berman, Billy’s best friend, and they ask him to spy on Morrie. The McCalls offer to pay off Billy’s gambling debts if he cooperates but he does not and pays the price. This is, of course, his greatest game, and the fact that he survives it, unlike others before him, is the key to the book.

Though Billy is the key to the book, Martin Daugherty, the local journalist and witness of Billy’s almost perfect game, also plays a key role. He wants to be the observer but he, too, is dragged into the game. His relations with Melissa, his father’s mistress, which are both sexual and financial, leave a profound effect on him and also compound his difficult relationship with his father. But it is his second encounter with Melissa that changes him and enables him to write the newspaper article that will save Billy from his fate.

This is the most complicated novel in the Albany trilogy and also the best. Kennedy exposes corrupt politics but he also creates a complex novel, focusing on game-playing but also people sticking to their standards, whatever they may be, which makes it well worth reading.

Publishing history

First published 1978 by Viking