Life : Today's Stories      
By PAUL GRONDAHL, Staff writer
First published: Sunday, May 20, 2001
It's fiction, not laurels, that counts for Kennedy

Novelist William Kennedy couldn't have conjured such a confluence of literary coincidence in his own fictive imagination.

A letter arrived at his Averill Park home informing him that he was to receive an honorary degree today, May 20, from the University of Notre Dame, an institution to which he has no formal ties except an allegiance to its sports teams of the distant past.

Then his literary agent called with the news that Kennedy had won a distinguished author award from the Tulsa (Okla.) Library Trust an entity he'd never heard of but would the novelist mind accepting the award and its $25,000 cash prize?

Next, another surprise missive, this from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Mass., announcing Kennedy was to receive its distinguished service award.

And Kennedy's alma mater, Christian Brothers Academy, weighed in with a letter apprising the writer of the fact that he was to receive this year's distinguished alumni award at a ceremony May 24.

"There must be something in the air,'' Kennedy says. "These things just started showing up in the mail, in bunches, for no explicable reason. It's very nice, but I don't see these as lifetime achievement awards. My lifetime and my writing is still very much going on.''

Kennedy was sipping Saratoga water on a recent afternoon, relaxing at home in a leather armchair in a book-lined room alongside a pool table. The Finnish edition of his last novel, "The Flaming Corsage,'' had come in that day's mail.

Machine novel

The day before, Kennedy had proofread and made final changes on the edited copy of the manuscript for his most ambitious novel yet, "Roscoe,'' an exploration and de-mythologizing of Albany's epic Democratic political machine. The book was five years in the writing and 50 years in the gestation.

It's also longer (412 pages in manuscript) and stylistically more complex the main story unfolds during a few months in 1945, but is infused with historical flashbacks and told from multiple perspectives than the previous seven published novels in Kennedy's Albany cycle.

"Roscoe'' was more difficult to abandon than the others, tricking the writer into thinking he had finished it on numerous occasions before calling it complete (more or less) on Christmas Eve.

The new novel also marks the first time Kennedy has worked with his new editor, Paul Slovak, after the retirement of his former editor, Al Silverman.

"It was a very simple edit,'' Kennedy says.

Kennedy's longtime publisher, Viking, plans to publish "Roscoe'' on the writer's 74th birthday, Jan. 16, 2002. At the same time, Viking will re-issue his out-of-print books ("O Albany!'' "The Ink Truck,'' and "Very Old Bones'') and release redesigned paperback editions of "Legs,'' "Billy Phelan's Greatest Game,'' "Ironweed'' and "Quinn's Book.''

The crush of recognition in the coming months has Kennedy thinking back to what he calls "that miracle year.'' It was 1984, after "Ironweed'' was published and he received a so-called MacArthur "genius'' grant, the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

"It's totally delightful for Bill to have this kind of recognition again,'' says his wife, Dana, who's busy making travel arrangements for the various honorary events, along with a summer trip to Cuba (he's researching his next novel) and a writer's festival in Ernest Hemingway's Ketchum, Idaho.

Good company

"What makes it really wonderful is the company he's in,'' she says.

At Notre Dame, Kennedy will receive his honorary doctor of humane letters along with fellow recipient and principal commencement speaker, President George W. Bush.

Past winners of the Tulsa prize, formally the Peggy V. Helmerich Distinguished Author Award, include Eudora Welty, Toni Morrison, John Updike, Norman Mailer and two with deep connections to Kennedy: E.L. Doctorow, who edited Kennedy's first novel, "The Ink Truck,'' four decades ago; and Saul Bellow, who nudged Viking into giving the "Ironweed'' manuscript serious consideration after it was rejected by more than a dozen publishers.

The Provincetown recognition is for Kennedy's founding and stewardship of the New York State Writers Institute. He'll be honored in the fall with artist Chuck Close. Past writer recipients include Stanley Kunitz and Grace Paley.

While the honors are a pleasant diversion for Kennedy, he's consumed by the journey of "Roscoe.''

"It was a long time coming,'' says Kennedy, who's been thinking and writing about local politics in myriad ways since returning to his hometown from the Army in 1952. He sifted through a closet filled with archival records he's been gathering since he researched a series on Albany's neighborhoods for the Times Union in the 1960s, which became "O Albany!''

But the big political novel was the one Kennedy always said he wanted to write, but managed to avoid until now. Probing deeply into the dark heart of the city of his birth, truth be told, scared him just a bit.

"I grew up around Albany politics, covered Albany politics, interviewed all the politicos and I still didn't understand the mystery of their motivation and how they felt about greed, power and morality,'' Kennedy says. "How would I reconstitute that history and tell it authentically as fiction?''

Creations of imagination

Kennedy notes that readers might confuse his fictionalized account in "Roscoe'' with historical fact. Although the central characters bear similarities to Mayor Erastus Corning 2nd and political boss Daniel P. O'Connell, the novelist stresses that they are creations of his imagination.

"I couldn't just transcribe reality,'' Kennedy says. "Saul Bellow told me you have to filter your stories through your soul. After 50 years of research, I hope this is deeper and more meaningful than the historical record of Albany politics.''

Periodically, Kennedy is asked if he's interested in elective office. In 1984, after the deluge of literary honors, Democratic operatives suggested Kennedy consider a bid for mayor of Albany.

"I couldn't think of a worse fate,'' he says. "I'd die within a month.''


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William Kennedy