Roscoe' triumphant

William Kennedy's latest novel mixes Albany politics, love and murder

By PETE HAMILL, Special to the Times Union
First published: Sunday, January 13, 2002
"Roscoe'' (Viking; 291 pages; $24.95) -- the latest book from Albany author William Kennedy -- is a splendid novel: at once an exuberant elegy, a sad comedy, a realistic fable of life and death.

In the seventh novel of Kennedy's "Albany cycle,'' the meshed subjects are the stuff of the real world, from politics to love, corruption to honor. But there is also room for a ghost story (the epitome of an unburied past), several murders, suggestions of incest, much gaudy corruption, and the distinction between sin and vice.

Since this is a novel, not a treatise, the grand abstractions exist in living human beings. And here they are lived most intensely through the wonderfully complex figure of Roscoe Owen Conway.

Falstaffian figure

Roscoe is a lawyer, one of three friends who in 1921 ran an insurgent campaign that took over the Democratic machine in Albany. He is at once a cynic and an idealist, a realist and a romantic, and when we meet him on V-J Day in 1945, he is trying to make sense of his life. He is secretary and second in command of the party, working from an office on the 11th floor of the State Bank building, "the main stop for Democrats on the way to heaven.''

At this point of his life, Roscoe is a Falstaffian figure: overweight, his heart waxy and clogged, living alone in a suite at the Ten Eyck Hotel (the same suite once occupied by his dead father after he abandoned his family for the noisy solitude of politics). His oldest friends -- the other members of "the triaxial brain trust of the Albany Democratic Party'' -- are Elisha Fitzgibbon and Patsy McCall. Elisha was born rich; Patsy enriched himself through the spoils of political power.

The friendship has endured across the years of prohibition, depression and war in spite of a dreadful personal complication: Roscoe has been in love with Elisha's wife, Veronica, for more than 20 years. She once loved him back, but turned Roscoe aside to marry Elisha, the decisive factor in her choice being the Fitzgibbon family's steel-derived wealth. Great wealth was power, and power meant security.

The male friendship endured, but Roscoe, who married and soon divorced Veronica's beautiful, nasty sister, has never stopped loving Elisha's wife. The past never does die; in Faulkner's phrase, it hasn't even passed.

At the V-J Day meeting, while Albany erupts in joyous, often randy celebration, the three friends discuss the imminent return of Elisha's (and Veronica's) war hero son to the minefields of Albany politics. When the son went off to war, he was the 27-year-old freshman mayor of Albany. Now he is crossing the Atlantic on a troop ship, heavy with war medals, to face a peacetime election, while the Republican governor is doing all in his power to crush the corrupt Democratic machine. The reformers, to Roscoe and his friends, are the true forces of darkness.

But before the son arrives to a hero's welcome, Elisha commits suicide, and the ripples from that shocking death -- and its many mysteries -- drive Kennedy's basic narrative.

"He just can't kill himself like this,'' Roscoe says, "and get away with it.''

On V-J Day, before Elisha's suicide, Roscoe wants to get out of politics, to have a genuine life for however many years he has left. It's as if all his wars are over, too.

But the world he helped create won't let him depart, and Elisha's death demands all his skills as fixer, deceiver and mouthpiece. He must soldier on, one of the field generals in the political wars whose major battlefield is Albany. Various "real'' characters make appearances, including Franklin D. Roosevelt, Al Smith, Jimmy Walker and Harry Truman, along with some Tammany characters who make their way from New York to Albany. I assume that many of the Albany figures are based on actual people.

It doesn't really matter. "Blame Roscoe,'' Kennedy says in an introductory note about the so-called reality of Roscoe's Albany, as if his fictional character is being allowed to make a brief for his own defense. The story is told in the third person, but Kennedy occasionally shifts to the first person plural, his choice of "we'' suggesting that a collective voice is telling the tale: the voice of Roscoe and his corrupt associates, the people of Albany, and Kennedy himself.

Reality and imagination

The world Kennedy, a Pulitzer-Prize winner, has created in his Albany novels always feels true, and this novel is no exception. It's as true as the London of Dickens, the Paris of Balzac, the Mississippi of Faulkner. The reader believes that this hotel stood on that particular street, that the whorehouses were in that neighborhood, the speakeasies roared in those buildings and the cockfights were right over there in Troy.

But if the sense of place is absolutely accurate, there is much more to the Albany novels than research. Like many first-rate novelists, Kennedy draws on history, biography, memory and myth, on the legends of small talk, on the lies of survivors. But then the novelist asserts himself. After time for marination, he adds the decisive ingredient: imagination.

"The truth is in the details,'' Roscoe broods, "even when you invent the details.''

Roscoe's trenchant aphorisms are scattered through the book: "Life without betrayal is not life.'' Or, "If you're vulnerable to caprice, we can help you. If you're not with us, you're vulnerable to our caprice.'' Or, "Honesty is the best policy for people striving to be poor, and an honest man's word is as good as his bail bondsman.'' Or, "They don't make sin like they used to.''

The imagined dialogue in this novel is tough, cynical, quick, and often very funny. All of it is rooted in character (which is why it's impossible to quote in a short review). Most of it acknowledges the absurd imperfection of human beings, a very Irish attitude created by the high-minded hypocrisies of generations of British rulers.

When I was a boy in Brooklyn, my father's friends talked like Kennedy's imagined characters, and so did the touring ward heelers from the Brooklyn Democratic machine. When Kennedy's politicians, cops, muscle boys and madams talk, I hear my own childhood, far from Albany. The best novelists always have that power: they provoke intimate responses in their readers, striking the secret tuning forks of memory.

Strong women

In this novel, Kennedy also shows his gifts for inventing women. None of them are shrinking violets. They are tough people in a tough world, forced to live in it without illusions. Even the minor female characters are brimming with surprising life. The Italian immigrant named Pina does what she must to survive, from turning tricks to killing a man who goes too far.

Hattie, who commands the real estate used by the madams, is funny and tough, without being hard. Elisha's secretary, Gladys, turns out to be leading a secret life of touching density.

The key female character is Veronica Fitzgibbon. Kennedy, the novelist, must portray her as she is, his own vision always wary of sentimentality. At the same time, he must portray her as Roscoe imagines her. This dual task is not easy. Roscoe is a man who sees the world as it is, not as he wishes it would be (a true descendant of Niccolo Machiavelli). At the same time, the romantic impulses of his youth remain alive. Nothing, after all, is more romantic than impossible love. Suddenly a clear-eyed man, heavy with years and sin, is reaching for those youthful rose-colored glasses. Kennedy uses great skill to make both aspects of Roscoe feel true.

He even manages to make an amoral man struggle with a moral choice. Through Roscoe's obsessed eyes, Veronica becomes more than a mere target of lust. She represents the chance to escape from the exhausting pettiness and permanent corruptions of politics. That is, to live the life Roscoe might have led, if only chance and the times had allowed him.

Kennedy allows Roscoe to acknowledge the imperfections of Veronica -- her steely need for money and safety, her evasions, her ongoing thrall to a woman spirit-rapper, her self-pitying remorse over the death of her daughter -- while convincing us of her value as the object of Roscoe's desire. In that sense, the novel triumphs as a love story.

For all the laughter, deceptions, corruptions and nastiness, the novel has an elegiac tone. Kennedy is not alone in cherishing the rough, rowdy world that began to vanish after V-J Day (when the novelist was 17), the world forever altered by the G.I. Bill, waves of political reform, and the time-obliterating arrival of television.

'Legs' connection

In the present tense of this latest novel, one emblem of the past remains as vivid in memory as any other legend: Jack (Legs) Diamond. He was, of course, the central figure of Kennedy's first novel in the Albany cycle, published in 1975 ("Legs''). Now he is a symbol of the bad old days, when thugs were thugs and cops were cops.

Legs is personally connected to Roscoe's story, because the old hoodlum was shot down by two cops who decided to solve the Legs Problem without the bother of grand juries or lawyers. Early one morning in December 1931, they walked into 67 Dove St. and murdered him. In this novel, one of the cops was Roscoe's brother.

The aftermath of that buried crime finds terrible life 15 years later in the post-war present of this latest novel. At the same time, there is a certain unstated, subtle nostalgia in Kennedy's writing for the much younger novelist who found his voice and his subject matter in the legend of Legs Diamond. Elegy is the most comfortable tone for writers who are no longer young.

Again, it doesn't matter whether the details of Diamond's death are real or invented: They feel true. So do the consequences; in the end, all human beings pay for their sins. The truth of this version of what is sometimes called history (the first draft of myth) is made real through the power of Kennedy's writing, which has never been stronger, more layered, more suggestive, more concrete. Legs Diamond and Roscoe Owen Conway lived in the same world. William Kennedy's world. It is our good fortune as readers that we once more can live in that world, too.

Pete Hamill is a columnist for the New York Daily News and author of eight novels and numerous books, including his bestselling memoir, "A Drinking Life.'' A new novel, called "Forever,'' will be published in the fall by Little, Brown.

William Kennedy