William Kennedy's "Albany Cycle"
By Suzanne Roberson
William Kennedy has written eight novels in what he calls the “Albany Cycle,” all set in his native city, Albany, N.Y. Writing in the New York Review of Books, the novelist and scholar Thomas Flanagan took this overview of
“William Kennedy’s cycle … began with Legs in 1975. This was followed by Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game in 1978 and Ironweed in 1983. They were spoken of then as a trilogy, partly because they shared a setting and some characters and partly because the third of them, a harrowing narrative of pain and a possible redemption, seemed to bring certain shared themes to resolution.
“But then came Quinn’s Book in 1988, which reaches out from Albany to an impressionistic nineteenth-century America, a land of slavery and warfare and haunted rivers. There followed Very Old Bones in 1992 and The Flaming Corsage in 1996, set solidly in Albany, but bearing down not on the public scene but on erotic and creative energies within highly untypical (I trust) families in the city’s Irish Catholic community. [With Roscoe he returned] to the larger city, a model, so he has persuaded us, of urban corruption. Taken together, the cycle … is one of the triumphs of recent fiction, uneven but audacious in its ambition and dazzling in its technical resources.
“In Kennedy’s Albany, everyone knows everyone else, even if they do not know themselves. They have been cheating and screwing one another for decades, one way or another. They know each other’s bloodlines, alliances, vices, secret lyricisms, schemes for survival or success. The bosses and their lieutenants and goons know what buttons to press, what feudal loyalties to exploit. Ordinary people, the poor and the obscure and the homeless, can make themselves useful stuffing ballot boxes, or, like Francis Phelan of Ironweed, voting early and often. Their masters use power and triumph as counters to buy the best food and the gaudiest women. But they also cherish power for what in itself it is, a mysterious, self-justifying energy and delight.
“Kennedy creates this setting with scrupulous accuracy, a Joycean reverence for street names, urban legends. It is quite possible that his knowledge of Albany’s geography, its nooks and crannies and their histories, is wider than Joyce’s knowledge of Dublin. It is displayed with flourishes not only in the novels but in O Albany!, the combined history, street guide, and memoir which he published in 1983, and which is based on wide reading, a childhood and youth lived there, and long experience as a reporter on the Times-Union. He speaks of himself, in the preface to that book, as ‘a person whose imagination has become fused with a single place, and in that place finds all the elements that a man ever needs for the life of the soul.’”
“[He] could take material from skid row and write about these people as fully human as anyone else."
— Saul Bellow
The eighth book in William Kennedy’s Albany Cycle is Changó’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes, published in 2011 and set in pre-revolution Cuba and in Albany on June 6, 1968, the day Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. was assassinated.
Sam Sacks observed in the Wall Street Journal: “The novels in the cycle overlap and are non-sequential; they cover a little more than a century of Albany’s history, beginning before the Civil War with Quinn’s Book. But their connections are so eccentric that it’s best to think of them as planets in a common solar system, often crossing orbits and casting light and shadow on one another … But a key to the novels is that they are genealogical as well as geographical. The history of the city is revealed through the complex generational sagas of … the Phelans, the Quinns and the Daughertys. The life spans of the major characters, as well as the branches of the family trees, are traversed piecemeal through each added novel … True to Mr. Kennedy’s Irish-Catholic roots, the dead in these novels are just as vocal and rambunctious as the (living).” (Sacks review, WSJ 10/1/11. WSJ Chango.pdf)
The eminent literary critic Alfred Kazin saw Kennedy as “a writer of extraordinary sensitivity and humanity, who took Albany, a place that had been unknown, buried for many years, and made us see the miniscule tragedies of lives caught up in the mercilessness of American life … He cares about these people.”
Saul Bellow said of Kennedy: “[He] could take material from skid row and write about these people as fully human as anyone else. The people he wrote about didn’t know they had become pariahs. He wrote about them from the inside. And it was very touching. I was moved by the characters, by their naive but human (frailties). Kennedy’s books show some very original insights. His treatment of the characters is very far from the usual hackneyed treatment. There are no dead sentences in his work. His language is vigorous, full of energy … In his books, nothing is being put over on the public. He doesn’t latch on to subjects so that the book can be sold. He’s just a pure writer.” (Croyden, Margaret. “The Sudden Fame of William Kennedy.” New York Times Magazine, August 26, 1984, pp. 33+)
Language is the principal element in Kennedy’s writing. “Language as style, language as elegance, language as life itself. That’s what I care about, more than anything else,” Kennedy remarked in a 1984 interview.
Neila Seshachari wrote in her introduction to Conversations with William Kennedy (1997), “Kennedy continues to experiment boldly with linguistic constructs, nonlinear narratives, mystical overtones, polyphonic voices, surrealistic (sweeps).” (Seshachari p.xvi)
Literary critic Mark Shechner wrote of Kennedy’s language: “Like Irish-American writers before him—F. Scott Fitzgerald, Eugene O’Neill or James T. Farrell—Kennedy is attentive to social class … But this ethnography needs translating into prose fiction, and it is writing that we prize Kennedy for: the brio of the vernacular—the pungent cantatas of the pool hall, the nightclub and the committee room—and the bristling argot of the street. Kennedy has mastered a style that could be called the poetics of the police blotter, combining hard-boiled lingo with taut lyricism, the muscular oratorios of daily speech with the barbed civilities of the drawing (room).” (Buffalo News, 9/14/03)
[He is] “a writer who captures time, transforms it, then guides it forward into the present for his readers to consume. . ."
— Colum McCann
Kennedy’s rich use of language, frequently described as lyrical, is often interwoven with a resonant musicality. The novelist-filmmaker John Sayles described Kennedy’s 2011 novel Changó’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes, as “his most musical work of fiction: a polyrhythmic contemplation of time and its effects on passion set in three different eras, a jazz piece unafraid to luxuriate in its roots as blues or popular ballad or to spin out into less melodic territory … [Kennedy] proves here he can play with both hands Changó’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes and improvise on a theme without losing a beat.”
Music permeates his novels, and a long-time fascination with the so-called ‘coon song’ “Shine” provided the opening chapter toand set the cultural stage for exploring the progress of the black performer in America through minstrel shows and vaudeville. Literary critic Ben Giamo wrote: “Kennedy’s keen interest in the color-coded genre became a cultural force that propelled him onward creatively … Kennedy views this rising of black performers as a critical form of racial positioning: ‘They raved about these shows … This was definitely a moment of progress ... because I think this is what some of those songs did, turning everything inside out, however horrible they were and degrading. There was substance to what happened because of them, and even the worst of them made everything so popular for black music and black entertainers. And, of course, entertainers were one of the elements that moved the black race up in the world … into a plane of significance, a plane of achievement … [This] is the kernel of growth that made me want to write a book like (this).” (Ben Giamo, “William Kennedy: Writer as Witness” (unpublished))
A lifelong jazz fan, Kennedy recalls he used to read Joyce in much the way he listened to (jazz). (LJ Q&A: William Kennedy, Author of Chango's Beads and Two-Tone Shoes) His admiration for the music of Frank Sinatra is reflected in the liner notes he wrote for Sinatra’s Reprise collection.
“Stepping into a Kennedy novel is like stepping into all available art forms. He’s an historian, a journalist, a critic, an essayist, a poet, a philosopher, a playwright..."
— Colum McCann
The novelist Colum McCann wrote of Kennedy’s language in his review of Roscoe in the Irish Times (2002), “Over the course of seven novels, he has displayed a high-wire allegiance to language. His energies are directed at an ongoing harmony, the balance of imaginative riches and pure form … [He is] “a writer who captures time, transforms it, then guides it forward into the present for his readers to consume. He steps into the lost moments of the past and makes history real. There is a huge amount of research done in his work, but he hides by forgetting it and allowing it to seep through language: you can feel the jazz bucking up from the needle … “ His allegiance is to the country of literature. In this landscape, he happens to be one of its bravest explorers. While a lot of contemporary literature is dull, beaten-down and housebroken, Kennedy goes for the big emotion and the major gesture ... Kennedy is a literary gambler, a crapshooter, a cardshark. A word has the weight of a stone in his hands. A vowel has color. A sentence stays up in the air way longer than it should—in fact, it stays up so long that it begins to succeed.
In his foreword to the London edition of Roscoe republished in paperback in 2012, McCann wrote: “Stepping into a Kennedy novel is like stepping into all available art forms. He’s an historian, a journalist, a critic, an essayist, a poet, a philosopher, a playwright. He consistently seeks the edge of his art. He is one of the great verbal cinematographers of our times. He captures light, transforms it, guides it forward, shifts it around, and burns it down onto the page … But perhaps Kennedy’s greatest gift is his sheer decency and humility. He finds grace in the enormous human mess. He is a writer of deep empathy and soul … Kennedy’s work is deeply moral. His words have weight. He is not afraid of the big emotion. Our lives matter. So too do our deaths. He believes in redemption, even if we have to crawl down the gutter to find it. He is emphatic that, even despite the evidence, we cannot afford to give up our delight in the world … As Roscoe himself suggests at the end of his novel: love or death, it doesn’t matter, either way he could use a little music. In William Kennedy’s hands, it’s (symphonic). (“Bootlegger of the Soul: An introduction to Roscoe” by Colum McCann. 2012.)