The Flaming Corsage

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Overview

The Flaming Corsage opens in a Manhattan hotel room, two women and a man present. Into the room bursts a second man, who transforms the scene into what the tabloids come to call "The Love Nest Killings of 1908." The mystery of that carnage will not come fully unraveled until destiny enwraps the novel's principal and most memorable characters, Katrina Taylor and Edward Daugherty. He is a first-generation Irish American who will break out beyond Albany as a playwright. She is a high-born Protestant, a beautiful and...
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Overview

The Flaming Corsage opens in a Manhattan hotel room, two women and a man present. Into the room bursts a second man, who transforms the scene into what the tabloids come to call "The Love Nest Killings of 1908." The mystery of that carnage will not come fully unraveled until destiny enwraps the novel's principal and most memorable characters, Katrina Taylor and Edward Daugherty. He is a first-generation Irish American who will break out beyond Albany as a playwright. She is a high-born Protestant, a beautiful and seductive woman with complex attitudes towards life. Theirs is a passionate attachment from the first, simple and unrestrained on Edward's part, more indecisive for Katrina, who, remembering her poet Baudelaire, regards love as apposite to death, "the divine elixir that gives us the heart to follow the endless night." But when the great stalker strikes close to her family in the central event of the novel, a cataclysmic hotel fire, the marriage changes into something else altogether. With virtuosic skill, Kennedy moves The Flaming Corsage back and forward in time from 1884 to 1912, following the fates of Katrina and Edward as other lives impact upon theirs. These others range from their socially opposed families to Katrina's lover, Francis Phelan; Edward's flirtatious actress paramour, Melissa Spencer; the rashly extroverted physician Giles Fitzroy and his wife, Felicity; and Edward's unnerving friend, the cynical journalist Thomas Maginn.

The sixth novel in Kennedy's Albany Cycle. In a Manhattan hotel room, a murder-suicide with four protagonists has occurred. But the mystery of who killed whom, and why, in the "Love Nest Killings of 1908," will not come fully unraveled until the lives of the principle characters are fully explored.

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Editorial Reviews

Robert Spillman

The Flaming Corsage, the sixth in Kennedy's ambitious Albany Cycle of novels which includes Legs, Billy Phelan's Greatest Game, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Ironweed, is set in turn-of-the-century Albany, New York, where lower class Irish immigrants carved out space among the long-established British. Edward Dougherty, "some kind of new being with no known habitat," is the son of an Irish foundry worker, but is given an education by Lyman Fitzgibbon, a wealthy landowner whom Edward's father had once saved from an angry rural mob.

Edward, who feels like an alien in both worlds, uses his education to make himself into a writer, first as a reporter, then as a novelist and successful playwright, chronicling his own life and that of laboring Irish immigrants. When he falls in love with Lyman's granddaughter Katrina Taylor, a luminous death-obsessed "modern" woman who devours the poetry of Baudelaire, both families disapprove. The Doughertys think it "traitorous" to marry the daughter of a man who had busted Irish unions, while the Taylors believe that Edward, for all his refinement and education, is far below Katrina's station.

Also working against the couple is Edward's alter-ego, a whoremongering reporter named Maginn who revels in telling his old friend Edward that he will always be "a mudhole mick from the North End." After Edward's social and artistic successes, Maginn jealously conspires to pull him back into the mud. Katrina and Edward marry nevertheless and struggle against the grain of their doomed union.

This is an old story, yet one that really sings, thanks to Kennedy's passionately poetic prose, his precise and judicious use of historical detail, and his steeping the story with the weight of the grim history of the Irish. The characters are sharply drawn and the philosophical questions raised are complex and intriguing. The Flaming Corsage is a powerful, compact and timeless novel by an accomplished artist writing at his best. -- Salon

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Enthusiastic readers of Kennedy's Albany Cycle novels, which includes the Pulitzer Prize-winning Ironweed, may be disappointed with this thin tale of love, betrayal and class divisions at the turn of the century. Playwright Edward Daugherty, born to hardscrabble Irish Catholic parents in North Albany, wins the heart of Katrina Taylor, daughter of an established Protestant family whose forebears go back to the founding of the city. Predictably, the marriage is not welcomed by either family, but love wins out. When Edward earns acclaim as a dramatist, he feels emboldened to offer a gaudy attempt at reconciling the family: he buys Katrina's father a racing horse, her mother a fur, and pays for a huge banquet for both families. But all ends in tragedy as fire roars through the dining room, killing one person and injuring Katrina a burning splinter pierces her through her corsage. Edward and Katrina's problems don't end there: Edward falls in love with a young actress, and Katrina, in a promising plot twist that never pays off, has an affair with Francis Phelan, the ill-fated protagonist of Ironweed. By various intrigues, more tragedies occur, most notably the "Love Nest Killings," in which a jealous husband shoots to death his wife and then himself, after wounding Edward in a New York hotel room. Although Kennedy makes an attempt to reflect these goings-on through the prism of Daugherty's plays, the effort smacks not only of a playwright's hopeless desperation to redeem himself but also a novelist's attempt to raise a rather trite novella into a novel of ideas.
Library Journal
The Bard of Albany offers a murder mystery with characters from the "Albany" cycle e.g., Very Old Bones, LJ 3/1/92.
Kirkus Reviews
"Leave the dead. Let's salvage the tie left to us," the protagonist of Kennedy's latest pleads with his distant, despairing wife. The struggle to escape the past is at the heart of this subtle, wise, original work.

This latest installment in Kennedy's ambitious Albany Cycle returns to, and deepens, many of the themes central to the series: the wayward nature of the human heart, the manner in which grief, regret, and enduring need shape and often remake family life, the way in which art, at its best, can clarify and transform life's losses and pain. The sixth in the cycle (previous volumes include Legs, 1975; Ironweed, 1983, which won the Pulitzer Prize; and, most recently, Very Old Bones, 1992) spans the period from the 1880s to 1912. At its center is yet another vibrant, tragic couple: Edward Daugherty, a brilliant playwright, and his equally headstrong, melancholy wife, Katrina. Surrounding them is a cast of other distinct and startling figures: Francis Phelan, Katrina's lover and a hero of Albany's working-class Irish community; the talented, self-destructive journalist Thomas Maginn; and Melissa Spencer, a gifted, conscienceless actress who becomes Daugherty's lover and sets in motion a murder/suicide that comes close to destroying Daugherty. The long, unremitting effort of Albany's Irish population to seize power from the governing elite is never far from the action: Daugherty, given a start in life by a wealthy benefactor, uses his plays to celebrate the resiliency of the Irish and lampoon the Dutch and English who rule the town. That theme, however, never predominates—the long struggle of Edward and Katrina to cope with a series of deaths and betrayals gives the novel its shape and narrative drive.

Filled with precise details of Albany's vanished life, narrated in a prose both salty and exact, catching the vigorous cadence of spoken English, this is the most impressive entry in the Albany Cycle since Ironweed.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780140242706
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 4/28/1997
  • Series: Albany Cycle , #6
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 224
  • Sales rank: 804,956
  • Product dimensions: 5.24 (w) x 7.85 (h) x 0.56 (d)

Meet the Author

William Kennedy

William Kennedy, author, screenwriter and playwright, was born and raised in Albany, New York. Kennedy brought his native city to literary life in many of his works. The Albany cycle, includes Legs, Billy Phelan's Greatest Game, and the Pulitzer Prize winning Ironweed. The versatile Kennedy wrote the screenplay for Ironweed, the play Grand View, and cowrote the screenplay for the The Cotton Club with Francis Ford Coppola. Kennedy also wrote the nonfiction O Albany! and Riding the Yellow Trolley Car. Some of the other works he is known for include Roscoe and Very Old Bones.

Kennedy is a professor in the English department at the State University of New York at Albany. He is the founding director of the New York State Writers Institute and, in 1993, was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He has received numerous literary awards, including the Literary Lions Award from the New York Public Library, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and a Governor’s Arts Award. Kennedy was also named Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters in France and a member of the board of directors of the New York State Council for the Humanities.

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Read an Excerpt

INTRODUCTION

The Flaming Corsage begins with the "Love Nest Killings of 1908." From this dramatic, bloody scene in a Manhattan hotel room, Kennedy moves his plotline both forward and backward, the events ranging from 1884 to 1912. Eventually, and ever so deliberately, much of the truth about the love nest killings will be revealed. Surprises are in store.

 

ABOUT WILLIAM KENNEDY

William Kennedy was born on January 16, 1928 in the predominantly Irish neighborhood of North Albany, New York. His first recorded experiences as a writer occurred during his high school years at the Christian Brothers Academy, where Kennedy wrote for the newspaper. While earning his B. A. at Siena College, Loudonville, New York, Kennedy edited the school's newspaper and served as associate editor of its magazine.

Praise

"Kennedy's most commanding performance since his Pulitzer Prize-winning Ironweed." — The New York Times

 

AN INTERVIEW WITH WILLIAM KENNEDY

Conducted by Vivian Valvano Lynch

 

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

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Table of Contents

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Reading Group Guide

ABOUT THE TITLE

The Flaming Corsage begins with the "Love Nest Killings of 1908." From this dramatic, bloody scene in a Manhattan hotel room, Kennedy moves his plotline both forward and backward, the events ranging from 1884 to 1912. Eventually, and ever so deliberately, much of the truth about the love nest killings will be revealed. Surprises are in store.

At the heart of the novel are two characters who will be somewhat familiar to Kennedy readers: the Irish American playwright Edward Daugherty and his wife, the upper-class Protestant Katrina Taylor Daugherty. Edward woos the enchanting and mysterious Katrina and she seems to reciprocate his love; however, a catastrophic fire changes everything for the young married couple, as Katrina loses part of her family and is irreparably scarred by "the flaming corsage."

The development of Edward's play writing career coincides with Katrina's increasing withdrawal from the world of reality. Their lives become more and more complicated as mutual adulteries surface; Edward's with a voluptuous actress and Katrina's with the young Francis Phelan.

Ever present is Kennedy's Albany; the details of the old Irish North End, where Emmett Daugherty receives his church's last rites, and the elegant Elk Street, where the imposing and austere Taylor mansion stands. But The Flaming Corsage also portrays some more unsavory parts of town, depicted with acute precision in venues like the red-light tents of the State Fair.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

William Kennedy was born on January 16, 1928 in the predominantly Irish neighborhood of North Albany, New York. His first recorded experiences as a writer occurred during his high school years at the Christian Brothers Academy, where Kennedy wrote for the newspaper. While earning his B. A. at Siena College, Loudonville, New York, Kennedy edited the school's newspaper and served as associate editor of its magazine.

In 1956, Kennedy worked as a columnist and an assistant managing editor of the Puerto Rico World Journal, a San Juan newspaper for an English speaking audience. The paper folded after nine months, but by the end of the next year, Kennedy had already earned jobs as a reporter for the Miami Herald, a freelance journalist for Time-Life publications, and a reporter for Knight Newspapers. He had also married Dana Sosa, a dancer, whom he had met in Puerto Rico.

In 1959, Kennedy became managing editor of the San Juan Star. Two years later he attended Saul Bellow's creative writing workshop at the University of Puerto Rico at Rio Piedras, and resigned his editorship to devote his full time to writing fiction.

Kennedy went home to Albany in 1963 to care for his father, who was living alone. He accepted part-time work from the Albany Times Union. By 1965, his articles about Albany's slums and racial integration had won state and local awards and were nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Between 1968 and 1970, Kennedy was film critic for the Times Union, and in 1969 published his first novel, The Ink Truck. The reading world had been introduced to William Kennedy's Albany and to the first of his fictional individualists, the striker Bailey.

In 1975, after painstaking research and numerous narrative experiments, Kennedy published Legs, a fictional account of the rise and fall of Jack "Legs" Diamond. In 1978, Kennedy's Phelan family made its first appearance in published fiction, Billy Phelan's Greatest Game, bringing the reader to the streets of Albany's "nighttown," a world of gamblers, kidnappers and political bosses. In 1983 Kennedy published O Albany!, a collection of essays on Albany's neighborhoods and ethnic history.

In 1983, Kennedy won a prestigious MacArthur Foundation fellowship. In 1984, he won the Pulitzer Prize, The National Book Critics Circle Award, and a PEN-Faulkner award, all for Ironweed (which in 1987 was made into a feature film). During that same year Kennedy enjoyed "A City-Wide Celebration of Albany and William Kennedy" hosted by his city in pride for its native son.

After writing the screenplay for The Cotton Club in 1984, Kennedy wrote the nineteenth-century historical novel Quinn's Book, at whose center is a newspaper man turned fiction writer. In 1992, with Very Old Bones, Kennedy returned to the family Phelan. Riding the Yellow Trolley Car: Selected Nonfiction appeared in 1993, and in 1996 Kennedy published The Flaming Corsage, which he is currently adapting for a feature film for Universal Pictures.

It has been said time and time again that Kennedy has done for Albany what Joyce did for Dublin. More than a mere delineator of place and recorder of details, Kennedy has repeatedly succeeded in telling stories of unmistakably original characters who struggle against what, to borrow a few words from Hamlet, are life's slings and arrows.

William Kennedy and his wife, having raised three children, continue to live near Kennedy's inexhaustible Albany. In a book-filled and memorabilia-crammed study, the Albany Cycle continues.

AUTHOR INTERVIEW

Conducted by Vivian Valvano Lynch

Q: Much historical information is contained in The Flaming Corsage, and a particularly memorable chapter that depends on solid research is "Edward Delivers a Manifesto." How did you go about conducting your research?

A: The "Manifesto" was a consequence of my visiting Ireland in 1973. I wrote some pieces then; but one I never wrote was a piece on Connacht. I saw that situation over there, saw how people had to live, had to take endless rocks out of the land, to exist on small patches of soil. It was a horrifying thing, like a lunar landscape. It still exists; it's a monument to desolation. I always wanted to use that someplace. I tracked it down historically for the "Manifesto." I found out about Cromwell's conquest of Ireland. It became a historical quest from one book to the next to find out how the Irish survived, where they went. I used Cromwell's letters, British historians, Irish historians. On other matters, such as the Delavan Hotel fire, that was historically accurate. There was such a fire and it burned exactly when I said, as to day, date and time, and with similar consequences. Of course, I had to invent the details of the characters' lives. I researched all the news coverage of those days. But, again, the burning of the hotel, which was such a famous place, and the deaths of so many Irish servant girls; these things made me want to go back and take another look at them and use them.

Q: Edward Daugherty is a playwright, and significant portions of The Flaming Corsage recount his play, The Flaming Corsage. But, of course, it is your play. What was it like to be an experienced novelist attempting to write in a different genre? Has there been a secret ambition to be a playwright all along?

A: I thought as a beginning writer, writing short stories, that maybe I would be a playwright. But that didn't last long. I wrote one play in the late 1950s, but I decided I wanted to write novels. However, I continued to be interested in theatre. After Billy Phelan's Greatest Game, in which I invented The Flaming Corsage as a play and created Edward as a playwright, it became a matter of becoming equal to my own imagination. I conceived the novel The Flaming Corsage in 1977; I was already working on it when Billy Phelan was published. I wanted to write a three to four act play, as a coda for the novel. I kept that thinking alive for a number of years because I didn't get to write the novel then. Other plays of Edward's became important to me, for example The Car Barns in Ironweed and The Baron of Ten Broeck Street. The impetus was to use an artist of that age. Theater was new, the Irish were involved, for example, O'Neill. Edward would precede O'Neill.

Q: An important narrative device in The Flaming Corsage is the non-sequential presentation of the plot. However, the book features datelines that the reader can use for chronological reference. Could this be a bit of homage to the techniques of journalism, the field in which you began your writing career?

A: I think the homage is to the reader, to keep him on target. It's a very complicated story. If you didn't have those dates and titles, you could easily get confused because of the leaps in time. It was an evolutionary form. I didn't set out to write a back and forth kind of story. Originally, I didn't have the "Love Nest Killings" at the beginning. When that became the opening, that set a pattern I had to follow, which was to maintain the mystery. It became a slow unfolding, through the inquest, various press reports, the pursuit of information by Edward (including his going to see Melissa), until you eventually understand the nature of the whole story's evolution. I wanted to parallel that with the story of the marriage. At a certain stage, the two parallel stories come together; they fuse. It was the matter dictating form.

Q: Of Katrina Taylor Daugherty, who had already appeared in some of your novels, most notably Ironweed, you said in an interview in 1989: "I love Katrina" (South Carolina Review 21.2, Spring 1989). How do you feel about her now, having written more of her story?

A: I'm still very intrigued by her. She's probably the most complicated woman I've created. As an achievement of creating character, I think she stands alongside Helen Archer in Ironweed. They're so different, but they are equally complex. I have great fondness for Katrina's eccentricities. I'm writing the screenplay for the novel now, and I have to rethink her all over again.

Q: Many characters appear and reappear in your cycle of novels. How do you go about deciding when to reintroduce (or finish) a character?

A: I never necessarily finish a character. I don't know whether I'm finished with Katrina; I might be. I'm not finished with Legs. Billy Phelan could come back again, as he did in Very Old Bones. These characters emerge as my imagination focuses on a past era or a past story, maybe the unfinished story of one of them that I have to tell. I know that for Daniel Quinn, of Quinn's Book, I have a novella or a long short story or maybe a novel. He'll take a role; he may not be the central character. I just never know; they pop up in my imagination.

Q: Which contemporary fiction writers do you read?

A: The writers don't all have to be alive, do they?

Q: No; why don't you tell me what you're reading?

A: I'm still reading Faulkner, and Beckett. I just read a segment of the new DeLillo novel and books by Cormac McCarthy, and Philip Roth. I just finished a wonderful novel, In the Memory of the Forest, by Charles T. Powers. It's a book of post war Poland under the Communists, and he carries it to the present day. It's an excellent piece of work. I'm sorry to say he died before he could see the book in print.

Q: In today's multimedia influenced world, how would you define the role of fiction and the fiction writer?

A: I suppose it will be as important as it always has been in the creation of story. The storyteller isn't going to change, no matter how the media changes. I think that serious fiction is suffering some decline and has been for a number of years, and I hear the same sad stories from Europe. But I have great faith that fiction writing will continue to be one of the most important things writers can do with their talents. I love it. I'll do it until I die.

PRAISE

"Kennedy's most commanding performance since his Pulitzer Prize-winning Ironweed." – The New York Times

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. If you came to The Flaming Corsage with prior knowledge of characters like Edward, Katrina, and Emmett (based on your readings of earlier Kennedy novels) did you find yourself using that knowledge in this reading? If you came to The Flaming Corsage without prior knowledge of characters like Edward, Katrina, and Emmett, did you consider them to be sufficiently developed in this novel?
  2. Albany as venue has by now become indelibly associated with Kennedy. What various components and aspects of the city between 1884 and 1912 (and of America itself) are significant in The Flaming Corsage?
  3. How important is Edward Daugherty's Irish ancestry to The Flaming Corsage? How important is the historical information about Ireland, especially the information delivered through Edward's "manifesto," to the novel?
  4. Discuss the principal traits of each of the main characters, and discuss whether they remain static or become dynamic (that is, change in a significant, essential way) in the novel; if they do change, discuss the reasons why.
  5. Consider any or all of the following as broad topics that may lead you, as you think about the specifics of The Flaming Corsage, to a recognition of possible themes of the novel: the collision of social classes and religious worlds; the place of the immigrant in established American society; the optimism of passionate, romantic love; the fragility of the human mind; the effects of guilt; the effects of loss.
  6. Another virtual Kennedy trademark is the presence of rollicking fun during certain situations that have the trappings of disaster. Is this technique old-fashioned "comic relief"? Or is there a more significant reason for this infusion of humor?

RELATED TITLES

Billy Phelan's Greatest Game

In 1938, the small-time bookmaker and audacious gameplayer Billy Phelan learns about political power and his own identity on the streets of Albany's "nighttown."

Ironweed

The Pulitzer Prize-winning story of Francis Phelan: ex-baseball player, onetime family man, present-day alcoholic, bum, and redemption-seeker of his hometown, Albany, after a twenty-two year shameful exile.

Legs

The gangster Jack "Legs" Diamond rises to national notoriety and international celebrity before being assassinated in an Albany rooming house. But...is he really dead?

Legs, Billy Phelan's Greatest Game, and Ironweed are also in one volume, An Albany Trio

The Ink Truck

Kennedy's first novel chronicles a newspaper guild strike against a major city daily.

O Albany!

An impressionistic history of Albany dedicated to "people who used to think they hated the place where they grew up, and then took a second look."

Quinn's Book

A sprawling tale of nineteenth-century America told through the voice and eyes of Daniel Quinn, Irish-American orphan, newspaperman, fiction writer, and lovesick suitor.

Riding the Yellow Trolley Car: Selected Nonfiction

Kennedy dedicated this collection of interviews, book reviews, and essays to "all journalists with a novel in the desk drawer."

Very Old Bones

Kennedy returns to the family Phelan. Orson Purcell, bastard son of Peter Phelan, and self-anointed "memoirist," tries to decipher Phelan history from the vantage point of a 1958 reunion.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 20, 2000

    Liebestod On The Erie Canal

    I'm appalled no one has pitched in on this title. I'm not a critic, but somebody has to stand up for this great novel. Kennedy paints in yet another twig of the family tree of man, Albany branch. There's a scene in Billy Phelan's Greatest Game in which Billy unexpectedly encounters Francis, his father, long gone a hobo. Kennedy said that Francis started to come calling on his thoughts, asking him, 'where's MY book?' And he had to write Ironweed. In Ironweed Francis comes back to his hometown without telling the family he had deserted many years before. He hangs around Albany on the bum, working up the strength to go see them and be so sorry. He sees the old Daugherty house and remembers how when he was a youth he was seduced by beautiful, crazy Mrs. Daugherty. Katrina. It's safe to say Katrina probably haunted the author in much the same way. His vivid imagination and his empathy for suffering, whether by lord or by servant or beast, seem to have provided the force for this lurid story with echoes of Citizen Kane and Camille, The Age Of Innocence and Gaslight. And don't forget The Mikado, whose contemporaneously fashionable songs provide the text for the book's introduction: With a passion that's intense I worship and adore, But the laws of common sense We oughtn't to ignore. If what he says is true, 'Tis death o marry you! Here's a pretty state of things! Here's a how-de-do! Seriously, if the Coen Brothers had put that on the front of this story, critics everywhere would be falling all over themselves to freshen their drinks. This is rich, sincere, tired-funny, wise, musical, literate storytelling, and it says something unique and welcome about what to do while visiting this world. I recognize the argument that Kennedy seems to be flying blind a little bit when writing the interior life of Katrina Daugherty, but he leaves us to fill in an awful lot about her. This in much the same way Lux moves though The Virgin Suicides. But you should read this book! Before you find out who's going to play the characters in the movie Kennedy's been asked to script. Imagine your own Katrina before you have Hollywood's Katrina in your head.

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