QUINN'S BOOK; By William Kennedy; Viking; $18.95
William Kennedy earned a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Critics Circle Award for "Ironweed," the last novel in his trilogy about Albany, N.Y.Now he mines the 19th century for "Quinn's Book," another novel set mainly in Albany, unexpectedly though appropriately written in the rhetorical style of the time. The magic-tinged history of young orphan Daniel Quinn and his search for manhood and meaning in life reads like a combination of "Great Expectations" and "One Hundred Years of Solitude."
Kennedy uses all the dark irrationality of a supposedly scientific and rational century to frame Quinn's quest for truth and success, qualities so fraught with ambiguity that he is led to conclude: "Life does seem to conspire against the lofting of the spirit, does it not?"
Mesmerism, spiritualism, superstition, prejudice, violence, mob rule, cannibalism, necrophilia, atmospheric acts of God, abject poverty and ostentatious wealth all play their part in Quinn's pilgrimage.
He begins as a youngster in Albany in December 1849, ferrying passengers across the Hudson in a skiff with his employer, John the Brawn. On a day of cataclysmic weather, however, catastrophe stikes. They are ferrying the infamous dancer Magdalena Colon, famed for her lascivious Spider Dance, and her 12-year-old niece Maud across the dangerous waters for $100 when the skiff capsizes. Magdalena is drowned, and Quinn rescues "Maud the wondrous," as he calls her, "this fragile and precocious visionary in a state of peril."
Maud becomes the heartfelt and infuriating object of his still little-understood love, and Quinn changes from "a boy being shaped by fire, flood, ice, and the less comprehensible barbarities of men and women" to "a creaturehood of a more advanced order: young animal confounded - solitary, furious, eccentric, growing bold."
More horrible and catastrophic weather follows; hundreds die when a pier collapses; Magdelena's body is dragged from the raging river; an irate citizen bites her cheek as the corpse lies on the street; Quinn and his boss save the body and take it and Maud to the home of the weathy Hillegond Staats; Quinn sees the future enacted in the dead woman's relentlessly open eye; John the Brawn sexually assaults both the living Hillegond and the dead Magdalena, bringing the latter back to life; and the corpse of 70-years-dead Amos Staats is brought into the house from his mausoleum and the corpse swells and explodes.
All in the first 40 pages.
And therein lies the fault of "Quinn's Book."
Though the novel is wildly exuberant and inventive, its headlong rush of unexplainable events distracts the reader from the characters.
Kennedy tries to squeeze too much into "Quinn's Book." Do we have to have Maud as Mazeppa and the Civil War and the New York draft riots and the Underground Railroad?
Ultimately, though "Quinn's Book" is fascinating, we feel our fascination extended toward a glittering surface that reveals the author's manipulation of his characters and his interest in narrative at the expense of building characters we can believe in.