BOOKS: LIVING WITH THE ASHES

IN HIS BEST NOVEL YET, WILLIAM KENNEDY EXPLORES MISPLACED PASSION AND THE POWER OF ART

William Kennedy's new novel, The Flaming Corsage (Viking; 209 pages; $23.95), turns on two distantly related events. The first actually happened. In 1894 a fast-moving fire engulfed the Delavan House hotel in Albany, New York. Fifteen people died, mostly kitchen help and chambermaids trapped in top-floor workers' quarters later found to have sealed emergency exits. The second event is pure fiction by the author of such raffish and elegiac novels as Legs, Billy Phelan's Greatest Game and Ironweed. In 1908 Giles Fitzroy, a prominent Albany physician, tracks his wife to a Manhattan hotel, where he finds her in the compromising company...

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