The author is at Ease in Blue-Collar and Literary Worlds
Irish Echo, March 28--April 3, 2001
By Dylan Foley
"Some of the guys are throwing me a book party down at the Teamster Hall on 14th Street," said Thomas Kelly, the author of "The Rackets." "It is going to be good — there’ll be Teamsters, assistant DAs, and some publishing types there." Oh yes, added Kelly, the son of a dead Irish gangster might also be there.
Kelly is a former teamster, construction worker and Democratic political operative who broke into the literary world with his 1997 novel "Payback," which dealt with the sandhogs who dig New York’s water tunnels, influenced by Kelly’s own experiences working 90 stories underground. His new novel deals with a young Irish-American man’s attempt to take down a corrupt and murderous union boss.
Kelly writes lyrically about New York’s blue-collar Irish — the cops, the construction workers, the ones who stayed in the old Irish neighborhoods like Inwood and Hell’s Kitchen.
Earlier this month, in a restaurant with a tattooed and surly waitstaff in Manhattan’s East Village, Kelly talked about "The Rackets," on writing about the Irish working-class families he grew up with and the Teamsters.
"I write about the second migration — first people were coming from Ireland to the Bronx, then they moved to Long Island or New Jersey," said Kelly, a burly man with a quick wit. "The whole ‘white flight’ thing has been exaggerated. It wasn’t so much that they were running from something, they were running to something. The family came, you did a generation in the ghetto, then moved on.
Kelly himself was born in the Bronx, but was raised in New Jersey. His father, he said, was a firm but compassionate man who had left ninth grade to work in the New York trainyards. As a 20-year-old construction worker, Kelly went to Fordham University, supporting himself as a sandhog. He did graduate work at Harvard, then worked as an aide to New York City Mayor David Dinkins.
Straddling the different worlds — construction, academics, politics and the New York literary world — has not always been easy.
"I sort of felt like the odd man out," Kelly said. "When I started going to college, I had no frame of reference."
The experiences in very different environments brought about change in Kelly. "Once you’ve gone places, you’re never going to completely belong to where you came from.
"It took me half a decade, this long transitional phase, that was somewhat disjointed," he said, explaining his long road from construction worker to novelist. "I realized as a writer, I’m very lucky to understand people from different walks of life; it is my most valuable tool."
Kelly also noted the price of upward mobility. "There is this class dislocation — the whole American pressure is to move up, that somehow you are a better person if you have a better job," he said. "It can be so much crap. A lot of things, the material things, can be absolutely worthless."
What Kelly does beautifully is to give voice to blue-collar New York — the Irish, Hispanics, the blacks, breaking down stereotypes.
"Blue-collar ethnics are usually mockingly portrayed in the mainstream media," Kelly said. "I write about shared experience. The one thing I learned in construction is that I have more in common with the Puerto Rican guy working next to me than a white guy from Peoria, Ill."
With Kelly, the Irish-American father in literature is finally fleshed out in the character of Mike Dolan, a Teamster reformer who is a terse and hard man, who has sacrificed everything. His integrity is unbreakable.
"I find that there is a cliché about Irish fathers — they are either portrayed as nasty drunks or as laid-back types. I come up with characters in a less intellectual, more intuitive manner," he said.
In "The Rackets," Irish Americans are both the good and the bad guys, with the Russian and Italian mobs thrown into the mix. There is violence strategically placed in the novel. In the construction rackets, said Kelly, "it is more of a threat of violence."
"I’ve seen a lot of violence, and those people involved in violence see how sloppy it is, how silly it is," Kelly said. "In my books, the violence is never gratuitous; it either moves the story forward or, more importantly, defines character."
At points, Kelly uses the novel as a vehicle to criticize the U.S. government control of the Teamsters, that started in the early 1990s.
"Of the 500 guys thrown out of the Teamsters, I think only about five were indicted," he said. "In an effort for the bad guys to save themselves, they sold out the union. The government finances their union investigations from the Teamster treasury."
Right now, Kelly is working on a new novel set in 1930s New York, and deals with the building of the Empire State Building. "This was the height of Irish power in New York," he said. "They ran the town. They didn’t own it, but they ran it."
The life of a successful novelist can be a lonely one. "I spend a lot of time alone, and that can be weird," said Kelly, as he walked up a sun-baked East Village street. Kelly, however, has kept his Teamster card, and talks of his old work loading and unloading trucks of scenery into Broadway theaters and Radio City Music Hall.
"I might go shape [the union hall]," he said about finding per diem Teamster jobs. "I miss working with the guys."