Study Guide

Barney Kelly in An American Dream

Barney Kelly

Barney Oswald Kelly is power and class personified.

Don't think that he was given everything that he has, though. Like Rojack (and Drake, for that matter), Kelly started from the bottom and used his ambition to fight his way to the top. And that's just the start of the eerie similarities between these two men.

Without any further ado, let's take a look at those resemblances in greater detail:

  • Both men fought their way into the upper class. Rojack got his big break after fighting in World War II and receiving a medal for his service. Kelly, on the other hand, stole his family's life savings in order to build his empire. In their own ways, then, both men took other people's lives to make their own.
  • Both men used their wives to gain even more power. As stated time and again, Rojack only got with Deborah because he believed she could help him win the presidency. Kelly married his wife for similar reasons after realizing her family was so rich that even their "dollars […] have influence" (8.366). 
  • Both men use sex to cover up for their unhappiness. This would be pretty interesting on its own, but it goes even deeper—they've slept with a lot of the same women, like Ruta and Cherry. Rojack is (dare we say rightly) horrified by this revelation, as if he's been living Kelly's life without even realizing it.

Like Rojack, Kelly has been transformed by his time in high society. Although all of this fancy stuff must've made him feel awesome at some point, Kelly has since learned that a rich man's "boredom is infinite in its dimensions" (8.386). It's this idea that leads to his more twisted actions, like seducing Deborah—when everything is at your fingertips, it takes a lot to make you feel alive.

Essentially, Kelly wants Rojack to join him. This takes the form of a suggested sexual tryst, meant to "bury the ghost of Deborah by gorging on her corpse" (8.438). Gross. Although Rojack straight-up murders Deborah, this is too much for even him. His was a crime of passion; what Kelly is suggesting is something far more sinister. Instead, Rojack chooses to risk his life walking the parapet to atone for his sins, rejecting Kelly's overtures.

We can't be sure what the future holds for Kelly, but we're willing to bet that little will change. He has reached heights of power that few will ever occupy, and this isolation has hampered his ability to act like a human being. Although Rojack might be a madman, he's still very much human, with some at least okay qualities mixed in with the bad. We wish we could say the same about his poor father-in-law.