The New York Review of Books
April 25, 2002
by William Kennedy
Viking, 294 pp., $24.95
This is the last article Thomas Flanagan wrote before he died on March 21, 2002.
Roscoe is the seventh in William Kennedy's cycle of "Albany" novels, which 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 cre-ative energies within highly untypical (I trust) families in the city's Irish Catholic community. Now, with Roscoe, he returns to the larger city, a model, so he has persuaded us, of urban corruption.
Taken together, the cycle, which surely has not ended here, is one of the triumphs of recent fiction, uneven but audacious in its ambition and dazzling in its technical resources. Two Albanys exist within its pages, superimposed upon each other. The "actual" Albany is a middle-sized state capital on the Hudson River, with a patrician Dutch past. In the nineteenth century it glowed with the oyster-and-beefsteak opulence of the Gilded Age, its restaurants and music halls resting upon the shoulders of an exploited and chiefly Irish immigrant population. By the new century, though, it had become complacent, unguarded, and after World War I it came under the control of an Irish political machine almost comic in its organizational thoroughness. In the Twenties, it was in competition with the downstate gangsters who ran the distribution and sale of bootleg liquor, the Legs Diamonds and Dutch Schultzes who had moved northward from Manhattan.
Bookie operations, prostitution, poker parlors existed at the pleasure of the machine, whose decisions were enforced by the police. In this, Albany was probably no worse than Trenton or Philadelphia, and may even have been a bit better than Kansas City, but those cities have lacked chroniclers with Kennedy's voracious appetite for fact and local mythology, his journalist's strong net for detail. Like Crane and Hemingway, he is both reporter and artist, one of the central defining traditions of American fiction.
The Albany of his novels, though, is not one of those great cities which have given modern literature its characterizing images, not the London of Dickens and Eliot, nor the Dublin of Joyce nor the Chicago of Dreiser and Bellow. It does not resemble the cameos carved by Runyon and Chandler out of New York and Los Angeles. These cities, in art as in life, overwhelm by their immensity, their unknowability. 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 is not quite Dante and Albany is not quite Florence, but the principle is the same.
It is a city not without its detractors. "Misery, wretchedness, ennui and the devil," the architect H.H. Richardson wrote in 1870, "I've got to spend another evening in Albany." And Kennedy himself calls it "a pinnacle of porkhead bossism, Wasp and Irish." But is quick to add that he is fond of things "beyond the city's iniquity. I love its times of grace and greatness, its political secrets and its historical presence in every facet of the nation's life, including the unutterable, the unspeakable, and the ineffable."
Like Joyce, he employs his surface of precise naturalistic detail to move beyond it, to hint at shapes, destinies, states of being that are alien to naturalism if not hostile to it. His Albany of gravy-logged meals at Keeler's and Breughelesque hijinks in the whorehouses is also a city of spiritual mysteries and metaphysical illusions. The barrier between death and life is thin and permeable. Roscoe is restrained in this regard: on occasion, Roscoe's dead father sits in his familiar chair in the lobby of the Ten Eyck, and long-dead wraiths cling to a mountain resort. He creates his two Albanys and thrusts them against each other, balancing them with a zest that is out of fashion these days.
Kennedy plays for high stakes. Ironweed, a harrowing presentation of life in the hobo jungles and freight cars of the derelict, is at the same time an exploration of guilt and the tangles of loyalty, told entirely without condescension toward its battered characters. In The Flaming Corsage, a range of literary modes-prose narrative, drama, journalism, workbooks-disputes the meaning of the story's "facts." Its subjects are as extreme as its methods-lust, incest, paternity, sexual exploration. In that novel, he may have demanded more from fiction than the form can accommodate.
Like Joyce, Kennedy emerged from an Irish Catholic background and education with a skeptical, modern-day intellect and a strong residual sense of miracle, mystery, magic. And the social world which he creates is almost entirely Irish-American; that is to say, Catholic with trimmings of clan loyalty, deep-banked feelings of caste hostility unassuaged by good meals in the best restaurants. The most attractive of the novel's political figures, Elisha Fitzgibbon (clearly based on the "real-life" Erastus Corning), is a Protestant, but we do not enter his world. Otherwise, Protestants, rarely glimpsed, are like unicorns, comely but delicate of bone.
In the world of the novels, as in much of America in those years, religion set people apart from one another to an extent which is likely now to seem improbable. Not a hostile separation much of the time, but severe, weighable. Kennedy's world is that of the Knights of Columbus, the Legion of Decency, Father Coughlin's broadcasts from the Shrine of the Little Flower, parochial grade schools and high schools, and beyond that, for the lucky ones, colleges maintained by the Christian Brothers and the Jesuits.
Things were different for me, growing up in Greenwich, Connecticut. Kennedy has described Scott Fitzgerald as the first Irish yuppie, and like John O'Hara I was following in his footsteps. By the time I was moving through the public high school, the very name of Father Coughlin's shrine evoked sickeningly the odor of Easter lilies and candle wax which I remembered (still remember!) from my days as an altar boy. Soon I would be off to my minor Ivy League college in Massachusetts, where I would join my peers in denouncing Boston's Irish boss, James Curley, whose counterpart in Albany was Dan O'Connell, Kennedy's Patsy McCall.
Kennedy takes a far more complex view of that world than I did in those years, though, a view touched with ethnic loyalty and affection, while he does not fail to dramatize the brutality and hypocrisy on which the political machine rested or the parochial narrowness which it expressed. But then back in those years, as he tells us in O Albany!, he had believed that "the enemies of the world were the goddamn Irish-Catholic Albany Democrats." He was detained though, as I eventually would be, by "the Irishness, which was the only element in my history that wasn't organized, the only one I couldn't resign from, and, further, the only one that hadn't been shoved down my throat." Me too. In Quinn's Book, his foundation myth of the nineteenth century, young Daniel Quinn carries with him from famine-ridden Ireland a grime- and dirt-encrusted plate said to possess magical powers, and which when scraped down and cleaned proves to be an antique Celtic disc, its power enigmatic and undeniable.
The more immediate foundation myth, its power pervading all of the novels, is the use by the political boss Patsy McCall of the assessor's office in 1919 to pry open the oyster of Albany's political power. From that all else flowed. By the end of the Twenties, the Irish were in full possession, Patsy controlling the patronage and his brother Binty controlling Nighttown, which meant the speakeasies, the poker parlors, the whorehouses, the police. This night world is most vividly and thickly present for us in Billy Phelan's Greatest Game, a world in which Billy moves as a skillful denizen, not of champion class, but able to make a living at poker, billiards, keeping a small book. But when the McCalls put out the word, he is cut off from that world as absolutely as if he had been exiled to Alaska, unable to buy a drink, place a bet. And he knows better than to challenge his fate.
In that novel, as in Ironweed, the novel about Billy's father, Kennedy displays a truly impressive ability to write on a level with his characters, to share the way in which Billy, a gambler on the margins, thinks and moves, but he is equally resourceful when it comes to portraying the world of Billy's masters, the masters of city life who pull the strings and jerk the puppets. Kennedy has no master when it comes to the juicy and horrifying story of city and state politics.
Politics is present in all the novels, but it holds center stage in Legs and Billy Phelan's Greatest Game, and now in Roscoe. It is 1945, and the machine is still in power, with the same bosses and the same henchmen carrying out their dark instructions. Times change, though, and as the novel suggests by indirection, it will soon be time for the machine to be taken over by young lions back from Normandy and the Pacific. Not better men, so the novel hints; indeed a bit more sinister perhaps but different in style.
Roscoe Conway, the machine's chief fixer, is already ready to step aside. He is painfully aware that he is overweight, overeducated for the slippery skills he has perfected, and, for a man in his mid-fifties, oversexed. He spends his days at party headquarters, sweeping rolls of tribute money into a desk drawer, dining on oysters and chablis at Keeler's or the Ten Eyck, and polishing the curious prose in which his perceptions are expressed, a kind of Henry Adams gravitas jazzed up with a hail-fellow breeziness. "Righteousness doesn't stand a chance against the imagination." Lately, though, these and other pleasures have begun to lose their savor. Roscoe's soul, though he himself does not yet know it, has been preparing him for death.
In Legs there is a rough sketch of what Roscoe may have been like as a young man. Marcus Gorman, the narrator, might have had a bright political future, but threw it away to become the upstate attorney for Jack "Legs" Diamond, the notorious bootlegger and gangland killer. Gorman is a student of Rabelais and a knockout speaker at Knights of Columbus communion breakfasts. For him too, as for the aging Roscoe, if for different reasons, life has something lacking, some essential cocktail sauce of danger. Diamond supplies it, for reasons made clear to us by the story, "pieced painfully together from Joe, Jack and a half-dozen others," of how Jack Diamond had dealt with a couple of noisy troublemakers at Manhattan's Hotsy Totsy club one night in 1929, after the fights:
Standing then, Jack fired into Tim's forehead. The head gave a sudden twist and Jack fired two more bullets into it. He fired his last two shots into Tim's groin, pulling the trigger three times on empty chambers. Then he stood looking down at Tim Reagen.
Billy opened his eyes to see his bleeding brother beside him on the floor. Billy shook Tim's arm and grunted "Timbo" but his brother stayed limp. Jack cracked Billy on the head with the butt of his empty pistol and Billy went flat.
"Let's go, Jack, let's move," Charlie Filetti said.
Jack looked up and saw Elaine's terrified face peering at him from the checkroom. The bartenders' faces were as white as their aprons. All faces look at Jack as Filetti grabbed his arm and pulled. Jack tossed his pistol onto Billy's chest and it bounced off onto the floor.
A fine piece of Hammett pastiche, but the credit goes not to Kennedy but to Gorman, our narrator. It is Gorman who has pulled the facts painfully together and shaped them into a narrative which impresses us with its studied lack of affect. Like much hard- boiled prose, though, it is really not neutral but expresses a covert admiration. "Tossed," for example, would not be the word chosen by Joe Vignola, who is one of the Hotsy Totsy witnesses. Rather, it expresses Gorman's sense of a man who can kill in blind fury and then not give a damn. Dumbfounding, but rather stylish.
Poor Joe, a family man with children, winds up in the Tombs prison, a material witness. At night he begins to see Jack Diamond, disguised as a Boy Scout, coming through the bars of the cell window, sometimes accompanied by another underworld figure, Herman Zuckman. "The night the dead fish jumped out of Herman's tuxedo Joe finally won his straitjacket." For Joe, Legs was now a figure out of legend, out of nightmare, and Gorman sees the comedy of telling it to us this way. And so, God help us, do we.
Jack Diamond was a real person, of course, a tough kid out of Philadelphia who had somehow acquired the nickname Legs, although never called that by his friends, but only by the tabloids and the columnists and eventually by the general public. He got very fam-ous very fast, a hijacker of trucks and distilleries, ready to use torture and to leave henchmen in the lurch, a dispenser of random, casual favors and brutalities. He worked with the most powerful of the New York bosses, Owney Madden and Arnold Rothstein, and at the time of his death was in a volatile competition with Dutch Schultz and Lucky Luciano. Luciano did not share Jack's love of the limelight, which allowed him to live into old age. He was a creature of the Thirties and Forties.
Crime and celebrity fed upon each other in the Twenties. Their common theater was nightclubs like the Hotsy Totsy-all of them mob-owned, and peopled by the types that form our cultural memory of the decade-reporters and racketeers, showpeople, chorus girls, shysters, boys down from Harvard and Princeton, enforcers. Every reader of Winchell knew that Diamond's wife was named Alice and that his latest girlfriend was Kiki Roberts, a showgirl with the tawdry good looks then in vogue. The posters for the movie Public Enemy, which opened shortly before Diamond was suddenly killed in 1931, hinted at the resemblance between the Jimmy Cagney character and a certain celebrated desperado. Cagney played a highly specific type-violent, trigger-tempered, impudent, swaggering, with the charm and magic of a young roughneck on the way to riches but not breaking into a sweat about it. And very Irish. Diamond too had a certain charm and also good looks, especially when the competition was Dutch Schultz and a psychopath named Mad Dog Coll. Not even Jimmy could boast of having limped away from four murder attempts. But Legs, like the Cagney character, was doomed to die young: everyone knew that. Unless, of course, he was immortal.
This was also the celebrity decade in the world of letters, stars of the columns and the rotogravure, Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald met Arnold Rothstein and used him as the model for Meyer Wolfshiem in The Great Gatsby, the man with cufflinks made of human molars. The brilliant economy with which he creates Wolfshiem is made possible because everyone had heard about bosses like Rothstein.
Critics have seen a resemblance between the two narrators, Nick Carraway and Marcus Gorman, but as Kennedy himself has remarked, Nick, like his creator, is too much the yuppie. At critical moments he breaks into purest yuppiespeak. "Gatsby who represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn," nevertheless "turned out all right at the end." There is, though, a more profound difference between the two characters. For Gorman the foul dust that trails in Diamond's wake is part of his glamour-the violence, the swift rages, even the vulgarity. They beckon Gorman toward his exciting new life. Like Jack Burden, the narrator of All the King's Men, he shares his leader's corruption.
On Gorman's first visit to Diamond's Catskill hideout, Legs and Alice offer a trial of a new machine gun, their equivalent, perhaps, of a fast set of tennis. "I smiled at Alice to imply I was her friend, and Jack's too. And I was then, yes I was. I was intuitively in sympathy with this man and woman who had just introduced me to the rattling, stammering splatter of violent death. Gee, ain't it swell." He's a goner. Like every true New Yorker, though, he uses slang and self-mockery to let us know he realizes what is happening to him.
Diamond spent his final months in Albany. On the night of December 18, 1931, after celebrating a courtroom victory which Gorman had won for him, he was shot to death, alone, in a back-street rooming house. "Who shot Legs Diamond?" is still a lively subject of discussion in Albany's better bars, or so Kennedy assures us. With Legs, he himself had made certain that this would be the case. But the novel asks a second question, which holds more interest for Gorman and for Kennedy. Diamond, Gorman tells us, has passed from life into legend and from legend into myth. And as myth, he has been granted immortality, hasn't he?
Parts of the Legs Diamond legend had begun to accumulate even while Jack was alive. He was aware of the process and tickled by it, if puzzled. Birds fall silent at his approach, it was said, and the story goes that he could tie both his shoes at once. Years after his death, an old whore swears that he could turn on the lights by snapping his fingers. Gorman has an explanation out of popular science for that one, as Leopold Bloom would. "He had a luminous quality at certain moments, when he stood in shadow: the luminosity is pure energy."
One time the tabloid headlines had read: "Jack Diamond Shot Five Times by Gunmen in 64th Street Hotel." Lew Edwards the impresario visits him in the hospital and promises him a publicity campaign that could make him the biggest thing since Billy Sunday and Aimee Semple MacPherson, with the help of speech coaches. He could found a new religion. Only in America. The reader remembers that in the same years, Zelda Fitzgerald was telling friends that Al Jolson was greater than Jesus. She may have been onto something. The transformation of celebrity into legend into myth in specifically American terms is the real subject of Legs. The final, surreal image is a bit like the Ascension in a Renaissance painting, Gorman and Arnold Rothstein helping Jack out of his body through his bullet-shattered skull. "'Honest to God, Marcus,' he said going away, 'I really don't think I'm dead.'"
Jack Diamond makes his final appearance in Roscoe in one of its flashback chapters. The real Legs, out of luck and out of money, unprotected by goons or crooked cops, is sitting in his underwear on the side of his bed, pleading for his life. His killers, of course, are the cops themselves, O.B. and Mac. O.B., the chief of police, is Roscoe Conway's compliant brother, and Mac is a thick-witted brute. Jack's fate, though, had been decided at the highest Albany level.
In the spring of the year, Governor Franklin Roosevelt was preparing his run for the White House, and people like Legs Diamond operating on his doorstep did not look good, especially now that Legs had added kidnapping and torture to his repertoire. Roosevelt sent his troopers over to "rip Jack's empire up the middle and sideways." Jack, though, had never been one to listen to reason, and instead he proposed to Roscoe, the machine fixer, a scheme to make Albany his headquarters in exchange for cheap beer. Roscoe agreed to pass the question along to Patsy and Binty McCall, out of politeness, but he never doubted their reaction. Diamond, Coll, and Schultz had been leaving corpses all over Manhattan in the beer wars, and newsmen reckoned that Diamond was ahead in the corpse count. "Did Albany need beer that came in coffins?" Patsy's response was mild, as words go: "That fella's going to be a serious nuisance if they don't put him in jail."
"Roscoe at that moment," so the narrative tells us, making a rare use of italics,
became the outsider in future Jack talk: Patsy trusting him like nobody else apart from certain cosmic decisions. You run the party, Roscoe, I'll run the nighttown- as if they could be separated. But Patsy believed in separate realms of power, pitted even his closest allies against one another when it suited him. Like pitting chickens. Competitive truculence. See who survives.
But of course Roscoe understands Patsy's decision as clearly as his murderous knights understood the words with which Henry II ordered the death of Becket. "Probably we'll never know the truth," the narrator tells us. "So many out there who wanted vengeance on the man. Whoever did it give him a medal, one cop said." Kennedy's use of third-person narrative in Roscoe is deliberately disingenuous. At times it seems to be recording Roscoe's thoughts-shrewd, artful, cynical, yet often and fundamentally large-minded and chivalrous, especially in matters of the heart. But at other times, as here, it is the wised-up voice of wised-up Albany itself talking at that moment off the record. Kennedy's deepest allegiance is to language, and in return it lets him say just about whatever he wants to say.
It may be that Kennedy takes it a bit too easy on Roscoe in this account of his twilight years, giving him as problems to solve the suicide of his aristocratic friend Elisha Fitzgibbon, his unconsummated love for Elisha's wife, and a deadly feud between the chief bosses of the city, Patsy and Binty McCall, a feud over their fighting chickens. The first and third of these problems seem unworthy of the worldly wisdom and skill with which we are asked to credit him. These are tasks better left to Scattergood Baines in the old Saturday Evening Post stories or David Harum in the old Will Rogers movie. But theirs, come to think of it, is the world in which Roscoe has grown up and which one day soon, rueful and reflective, he will join.
The plot earns its keep though. Kennedy has never written a more vivid and sanguinary chapter than his description of a cockfight at a pit in neighboring South Troy, "in the opinion of cockers east and west, north and south, the most famous cockpit in the Northeast, maybe in all of America." That chapter captures it all-the birds themselves, their owners and handlers, the circular dirt pit with its three-foot-high canvas wall, the surrounding crowd of gamblers and lovers of bloody murder. Here is Kennedy describing how to rig a fight with the help of a little anticoagulant:
His neck will swell with blood and he'll be cyanotic, presumed dead. The savvy handler will quickly massage the blood out of his neck in the ring and revive him before he goes into irreversible shock, then will do it again at the first-aid bench, and the bird will recover, but now be known as a loser. Take him off the coumadin and fight him again, with long odds against him now as the loser; but this time he'll be wearing proper-length spurs to kill, he will have fought and lived, and he will think with the serrated edge of a survivor.
"To Roscoe," we are told by that eerie, unstable (to use a word in vogue) narrative voice, "spectating at cockfights was a lifelong education in tension, cowardice, unpredictable reversals, and courage. The birds, bred for battle, fought for neither God nor glory, neither to eat nor for love. They fought to conquer the other, to impose death before it was imposed. Just like politics, Roscoe decided, but without the blood. 'Well, sometimes there there's blood.'"
Ask Legs. Neither to eat nor for love. Now the unstable voice can quote Shakespeare, as Roscoe can. Whose voice it is now is beyond me.
The richest sections of Roscoe are the ones that move backward in time to the machine's seizure of power and to its full, flowering existence ten years later, when the book deals with Jack Diamond. But that story pauses with a shadow of the future on it, with the Democratic gubernatorial convention in the autumn of 1932. It is then that the boys learn that Jimmy Walker, the pride of Tammany Hall and the Albany machine, will be thrown to the wolves by FDR and Al Smith himself, the prince of Irish Catholic pols, himself denied the presidency in 1928 by a nation of Protestant bigots. Not only that, but FDR and Smith, unlikely allies, are throwing the governorship not to Elisha Fitzgibbon but to Herbert Lehmann, partly for political reasons and partly because the country is experiencing one of its recurring morality epidemics, as Roscoe calls them. Roscoe has consoling words for Patsy. "Pat, we are Democrats, remember? And we are steeped in Democracy. We own the city, the county, the state, and the nation. Things could be worse."
Kennedy's art is an eccentric triumph, a quirky, risk-taking imagination at play upon the solid paving stones, the breweries, the politicos and pool sharks of an all-too-actual city. The collisions of setting and stance, if nothing more, bring Yoknapatawpha County to mind, despite the vast distances, geographical and cultural, which separate the Mississippi and the Hudson. But Faulkner and Kennedy also share old-fashioned themes like honor, betrayal, the foreverness of the past.