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A Wink Above the Slipping Mask : QUINN’S BOOK <i> by William Kennedy (Viking: $18.95; 273 pp.) </i>

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With “Quinn’s Book,” William Kennedy moves from the gritty realism of “Ironweed” and the other two books in his Albany trilogy into what might be called the Hudson River School of historical myth.

Like Mark Helprin’s “Winter’s Tale,” George Trow’s “The Empire City” and T. Coraghessan Boyle’s “World’s End,” “Quinn’s Book” elevates portions or approximations of New York history--Dutch, English, Irish--into legend. The purpose is not simply to tell or invent tales of the past but to create ghosts to haunt and enliven our sadly ghost-starved present.

Set in the middle of the 19th Century, it takes Daniel Quinn, a river urchin, into adulthood and through a variegated world of high- and lowlife: patroon descendants, itinerant theater artists, sinister cabals of financiers, rambunctious journalists, the Civil War and the violent local warfare between Irish immigrants and know-nothing anti-immigrant gangs.

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It is done in lavish extremes of incident and style. There are hints of the phantasmagoric in the tall stories that Daniel lives through. They are a pastiche of melodramatic romance and high-flown language; they suggest both the penny-dreadful narrative style of the period and the ironic undertone that darkens the high colors of contemporary magic realism.

Right at the start, for instance, the sexy traveling diva, Magdalena Colon, chooses the most perilous way to cross the ice-choked Hudson to get to an engagement in Troy. Instead of taking a longer, but safer, route, she hires a skiff. “Recklessness,” Kennedy writes, “was far likelier to send the shiver of lust through the spines of men, fire envy in the livers of their wives and daughters, and set tongues to gossipaceous clacking that would pack the hall. . . .”

It is flamboyant and knowing at the same time, this kind of writing. It is a fancy-dress masquerade party where a sardonic contemporary eye winks over an old-fashioned mask. The reader is called upon to make a series of quick reverses; surrendering to the theatrics while noting the up-to-date electronics of the lighting board and the scenery lift.

Kennedy has fun with these tricky switches, and so do we; but he doesn’t quite master them. He moves in inspired spurts for a while, then dries up, beaching us. Daniel’s adventures are captivating at times; at others, they seem to march in place, awaiting instruction.

The beginning goes very well. Magdalena’s skiff is upset by an ice floe; John the Brawn, master of another skiff, pulls her from the water, apparently drowned. Meanwhile, John’s helper, the 13-year-old Daniel, rescues Maud, the 12-year-old child who is traveling with Magdalena.

It is a rescue amid a wild general catastrophe. A bridge packed with spectators collapses. A 60-foot ice wall breaks, releasing the pent-up river waters, flooding Albany, drowning hundreds and setting a lime works on fire. The fire destroys what the flood hasn’t.

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Meanwhile Maud, a magical sprite, takes charge of her immediate circle. Introducing herself as the daughter of the mistress of the exiled King of Bavaria, she announces that Magdalena is her aunt and “vastly superior to Mother as a human being.” She directs the party--John, Daniel and the body of Magdalena, from whose cheek a bereaved and enraged bystander has just taken a large bite--to the mansion of the wealthy Hillegond Staats, widow of a descendant of merchants and patroons.

Then, in short order, John makes love simultaneously to Hillegond and to the corpse of Magdalena, which promptly reconstitutes itself and comes to life. A runaway slave is discovered in the family tomb. The body of a Staats forebear, exposed to the air, explodes. Maud kisses Daniel passionately, claims him for when they are both old enough, and declares: “I love only Daniel Quinn and I want to give him half or more of my life.” To which Quinn, narrating all this years afterwards, reflects: “Was ever a more precisely self-apportioning line uttered by woman?”

This mixture of extravagant incident and dry wit keeps the book, in its best moments, in a state of provocative imbalance. After the beginning, though, the extravagance lurches along with varying success, and the wit flickers on and off.

An account of the family history of Hillegond’s patroon connections is thin, and the story of the successive generations lacks contrast or the kind of richness that Boyle brought to his “World’s End.” A subplot involving the bloody workings of a corrupt league of capitalists, known as the Society, is spectacular but halfhearted.

Kennedy is much better describing the hand-to-mouth existence of Daniel in the Albany slums (Magdalena and John abandon him, taking Maud with them). An account of a cholera plague is brief but chilling. Best of all is his description of the Irish immigrants battling a local American gang that has been persecuting them.

Helped on by Hillegond and a local newspaper editor, Daniel becomes a journalist who wins fame for his vivid accounts of the Civil War. Maud goes on the stage with her aunt, is acclaimed as a spirit-medium and gets engaged to the scion of a rich Albany family.

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The mystical, predestined passion between Maud and Daniel goes into a kind of charged retreat. Kennedy gives a delicate description of a couple of reunions, alive with comical electricity. They are provisional and inconclusive, like a loaf of bread being checked periodically for doneness.

The end is a whirl of events that include sketches of high life in Saratoga and accounts of horse races, boxing matches and a draft riot. Daniel shocks a fashionable audience with a bitterly realistic account of his Civil War experiences. Hillegond is savagely murdered; her murderer is killed by two owls jointly and mysteriously controlled by Maud and a magical platter owned by Daniel. The two lovers are lushly and definitively reunited.

Kennedy’s control wavers. Daniel as narrator can be sharp and witty, but he is also given to vague and rhetorical effusions. There are times, particularly at the start, when a provocative fantasy seems to be taking shape; capable of turning “Quinn’s Book” into a true mythological history. It doesn’t hold, though; it comes together and falls apart in a rush of words and an exaggerated, make-work busyness.

“I, Daniel Quinn, neither the first nor the last of a line of such Quinns, set eyes on Maud the wondrous on a late December day in 1849 on the banks of the river of aristocrats and paupers, just as the great courtesan, Magdalena Colon, also known as La Ultima, a woman whose presence turned men into spittling, masturbating pigs, boarded a skiff to carry her across the river’s icy water from Albany to Greenbush, her first stop en route to the city of Troy, a community of iron, where later that evening she was scheduled to enact, yet again, her role as the lascivious Lais, that fabled prostitute who spurned Demosthenes’ gold and yielded without fee to Diogenes the virtuous, impecunious tub-dweller.”

--Opening sentence in “Quinn’s Book.”

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