January 29, 2002
ALBANY legend William Kennedy is back with another novel about politics in the bad old days. DYLAN FOLEY talks to the Pulitzer Prize-winner about his hometown, Irish machines and ghosts.
AFTER a six-year hiatus, the novelist William Kennedy has published his seventh Albany novel to rave reviews. In "Roscoe" (Viking, 291 pages, $24.95), Kennedy offers up Roscoe Conway, the secretary of the corrupt Albany Democratic machine. Kennedy is clearly back on top of the writing game, with Roscoe Conway as the ultimate political fixer.
It is V-J Day in 1945 and Roscoe's party is under attack by the New York governor. The party's backer Elisha Fitzgibbon commits suicide just as a vicious scandal breaks. Roscoe, who says "I am incapable of the truth, so I am incapable of lying," has to save the party and Elisha's widow Veronica, his one true love.
In Kennedy's Albany, the politicians are Irish, the crooked cops are Irish, the whores are Irish, and so are the nuns. Roscoe and Patsy McCall, the party leader, always make sure to install an upstanding and pliable Episcopalian as mayor, to win the Protestant vote. The great Irish
politicians Al Smith and Jimmy Walker float in and out to do bare-knuckle battle with Albany machine, sometimes as allies, sometimes as foes.
Kennedy, of course, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1983 for "Ironweed," his heartbreakingly beautiful, gritty novel of Depression-era Albany. More recently, actor/director Ed Burns has been trying to make a movie of Kennedy's gangster study "Legs" for over a year now. Word is the Long Island star is still looking to secure financing.
In an interview with the Irish Voice in a New York City hotel, the 75-year-old Kennedy looked dapper in a crisp blue shirt and black slacks. He talked about his new novel, the colorful Albany machine and how to create an appealing, amoral character.
For Kennedy, Roscoe Conway evolved as the book progressed.
"Roscoe came out of the need to have a narrator who knew every level of the Albany Democratic machine," said Kennedy. "His brain, his self-critical quality was very interesting to me. He represents the complexity of the politician--the fact that he'll do anything, that he's completely dishonest. Like Patsy McCall, these are men that will do anything."
IN Kennedy's novels, including Billy Phelan's Greatest Game, The Flaming Corsage and Legs, his native Irish community of North Albany has played a crucial role in shaping his writing.
"It has been the motherlode," said Kennedy. "I got obsessed with Albany when I was writing a newspaper series about it."
Kennedy still lives just outside of his hometown. Growing up in the 1930s and 1940s Albany, Kennedy's relationship to the Democratic Party was a family affair.
"I've counted about 12 members in the party," he said with a chuckle. "My father worked the polls late in his career. My great-uncle was a committeeman in the 9th ward in North Albany. You got your job on the basis of being a party member. If you were a registered Democrat, you were home free."
Compared to the dark "Ironweed," Roscoe starts as a farce, where the corruption is in the air that everyone breathes and the education starts early. When Roscoe is given a rifle as a child, his mother, the long-suffering wife of a political operative, admonishes him to "Remember, never shoot anyone with that gun, unless they are a politician."
As the novel progresses, Roscoe evolves as a romantic character, and as a man who lives by a code of honor, even if he lies and cheats to maintain it. He will protect his party at all costs, and will save the people he loves from a lawsuit with incestuous undertones.
"Roscoe didn't always exist," said Kennedy. "I tried to tell the book from Patsy's point of view, but I couldn't do it. He wasn't smart enough."
The Democratic party has had a 23-year reign over Albany, controlling the cops, the gambling dens and the whorehouses, and filling the patronage jobs. Roscoe is Falstaffian in girth, but Runyonesque in character. Kennedy has written a rich and wry novel of power and greed, and through Roscoe explores the human emotions of love, loyalty and jealousy.
Roscoe is tired and wants out of politics, but he has two great battles left. He has to defend the party from a Republican governor out for blood.
"Governor Tom Dewey is after them," said Kennedy, "trying to break up the machine, to prove that he is the knight in shining armor."
The party is also threatened by a paternity suit from Roscoe's ex-wife Pamela, who threatens to reveal ugly secrets. Roscoe accuses his dead friend Elisha of false rape to derail the case.
"His motivations are to save the party and Veronica, and to not allow his ex-wife, who he loathes, to do this dastardly deed," said Kennedy. "He would make his false assertions in keeping with the patterns of falsehoods that he and the party live with. He is a consummate schemer. He sees where the blackmail lays and is capable of countering it."
Like Ironweed, Kennedy stitches his new novel together with ghosts. In his dreams, Roscoe takes advice from the spirit of Elisha and discusses morality on a streetcar with the murdered gangster Jack Diamond. ("`Virtue was one hell of an idea,' said Jack. `Let me off at the corner.'")
"I've always been taken by the existence of ghosts," admitted Kennedy. "It just becomes part of my imagination. I've got a lot of ghosts in my own life. For me, they are moving around."
For Kennedy, the characters often take on lives of their own and he follows their surprising actions.
"Roscoe took off," he said. "He does all sorts of things I didn't expect. This is when you know you are on the right track, when you can invent your way out of the character's imagination because it's new to you. That doesn't always work, but if it does, you stay with it.
"Nabokov once said that the characters are galley slaves, but I don't believe that is a viable way to work," said Kennedy. "For me, that would mean being locked into one character. Patsy has to change, to fluctuate, for he is as a mercurial character, as Roscoe is."
Physical places become a jumping-off point for Kennedy.
"There is a photograph of an empty street," he said, "that was maybe taken 10 years before I was born, and that was the street I grew up on. I could put the houses and factories there, what was going to come, all the lives that have passed through, and I have a city floating in imagination and memory. Every so often, I ground them. I open up a saloon or a grocery store. I have a sense of place, I have a sense of time with Albany that will be there forever with me."
The roots of his writing style also come from his three decades as a reporter.
"My authentication of time and place came out of journalism," said Kennedy,"to get the facts and don't fudge them. Once I've got them, then I can turn them into something that never was. Make them whatever I feel like making them. History and place have a magical effect on me.
"The writing of Roscoe took maybe five years," said Kennedy, "but the actual gathering of information was over 40 years. Back in the 1950s, when I was a young reporter, I would hang out with the old reporters, reminiscing, crying into their beers. They told wonderful stories about
Albany, a lot of them lies. In a sense, I liked their lies best."