book cover   Roscoe. By William Kennedy. NY: Penguin-Viking 2001, 291 pages.

Reviewed by I. Nirenberg

In the Henry IV plays, Shakespeare tells a tale of power, of legitimizing power, of growing into power. The shifting scenes of politics and bawdy, the variety of language, the emergence of the King from the young scapegrace prince create the rich design. But it is Falstaff, brilliant, gross, irreverent and ultimately forlorn, who remains with us after the noble speeches fade. His shade haunts William Kennedy's newest novel, "Roscoe", a story set in the Albany of the mind that Kennedy creates in his Albany cycle, which includes the Pulitzer Prize winner "Ironweed."

The story of "Roscoe" takes place during a few months after the end of World War II. Roscoe Conway, second in command at the Democratic Party, wants to retire from politics -- echoes of Falstaff's "I must give over this life, and I will give it over" -- but his life is not ready to let go of him just yet: the Party needs him, his best friend's death has left him in charge, and his impossible love seems within his reach. As the story starts, the War has just ended. Alex Fitzgibbon, Albany's young Mayor, returns from the Army to reclaim his post. Alex's father has just died in murky circumstances, and his younger, adopted brother's birth mother is trying to wrench her son from the family. Roscoe was old Fitzgibbon's friend and has been the young Mayor's mentor: he will go all out to "ensure continuity of the Party, of Alex, of the family, of love." A Falstaff in girth, in appetites and wit, and perhaps also in his ultimate loss, Roscoe is also an astute planner and a worthy heir to his father, Felix Conway, whose ghost haunts the lobby of the Ten Eyck Hotel, Hall of Patronage.

The climb of Roscoe and his two friends to the top of political power in Albany is depicted against the backdrop of the Albany landmarks familiar from William Kennedy's earlier novels, and against a swarming anthill of humanity: the powerful men who run the Albany Democratic Party political machine, Prohibition era bootleggers, financiers, gamblers, police, whores, nuns, mayors and other just plain folks, who live, love and vote untiringly. Roscoe's memories move the story back and forth between the end of World War I and the end of World War II, while Roscoe grabs the reader with his brains, his guts, his lovingly crafted inventions, his cynical faith.

"This is a novel, not history," William Kennedy tells us in his "Author's Note" at the end of the book. He goes on to say: "There was a political machine in Albany ... and some characters here may seem to be real people. But I don't do that sort of thing [...] As Roscoe points out, truth is in the details, even if you invent the details." In "Roscoe" the details are convincingly depicted, with the thorough historical research deftly woven into the tale.

In "Writers on Writing" (N.Y.Times, 01/28/2002) Kennedy recounts the long gestation of this novel, started 40 years ago, and the slow process by which he began to understand the Albany political machine, and gained the respect of the politicians who would finally allow him to peek into its inner workings. He tells of his early attempts "to use Patsy, the Boss,... and then his wealthy Protestant political partner" as central figures, until Roscoe Owen Conway invaded his imagination: "with his life having no counterpart in actual history," the character of Roscoe emerged as the narrator, rich with the self-critical wit and intelligence required for the complex reality of this story.

Read "Roscoe" as historical fiction, or as a tale about power, or pretend you have never heard of Mayor Corning or of Boss O'Connell or of Prince Hal, and read it as a gripping legal thriller. What will stay with you is its story of a far-seeing, devious, corrupt and yet loyal man. In Roscoe, who is Sam Spade as well as Falstaff, we have a hero who can see his own contradictions, and bet it all on the impossible. Was it the love theme or the death theme that the orchestra was playing? "Ah well, he thought, going in, either way I could use a little music."

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