Kennedy reads from political novel 40 years in making

Staff writer

It's the big Albany political novel William Kennedy has always intended to write.

He spent the last four decades assiduously avoiding it, while publishing seven novels and two books of nonfiction.

"It was too much, too intimidating when I started to write it in the '60s,'' he said. "I've collected boxes of research material since then. I've really been working on it for 40 years, but I'm just beginning to digest it in a way that makes sense.''

Now, at age 70, Kennedy is wrestling with the beast.

He unveiled the results of his early grapplings recently before a capacity crowd of about 150 people at the New York State Summer Writers Institute on the campus of Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs.

It was Kennedy's first public reading of his novel-in-progress, a manuscript tentatively titled "Roscoe.'' He hasn't yet shown any of it to his publisher, Viking.

"I'm not even thinking about sending it to the publisher before another six months, maybe a year, working on it. Unless I really need the money,'' he said with a chuckle.

The group of aspiring authors in residence at the monthlong writing seminar and Kennedy partisans up from Albany laughed at the Irish humor, audibly cringed at the macabre descriptions and marveled at the fabulist imaginings.

Overshadowed by the mythic Democratic machine, the novel opens at a hospital with a Catholic nun who gets drunk on gin proffered from a patient's flask.

A one-armed man named Specky keeps lopping off the regenerative stump with a knife and needs to be put away.

The dead speak from the far side of the grave. Memory is itself a character, generally painful and unresolved, resembling "a fireplace full of ashes.''

Multiple choice

The title character is Roscoe Conway, a lawyer and bon vivant, a machine operative and one-time actor who's had money and lost it more times than he cares to remember. Roscoe is one of several protagonists in the book, which is told through multiple perspectives.

Kennedy abandoned about 100 pages of an earlier draft that employed a third-person narrator. "I didn't like it because I couldn't hear the voices,'' Kennedy said. "The focus was all wrong for the beginning of the book.''

The central scene of the opening is the mysterious death of Elisha Fitzgibbon at age 54. The scion of Fitzgibbon Steel -- a former lieutenant governor and adviser to FDR, renowned thoroughbred horse owner, Albany aristocrat and Episcopalian who befriended the working-class with his common touch -- Kennedy's fictional creation bears a resemblance to real-life Edwin Corning, father of Mayor Erastus Corning 2nd.

Upon being sworn in as lieutenant governor in 1933, Elisha Fitzgibbon said: "This is a great job for a man with misguided ambition.''

As a novelist, Kennedy can reconstitute personal ambition or the lack thereof any way he likes.

"This novel is strongly based on real people. Dan O'Connell will be significant and Erastus Corning will be somewhat,'' Kennedy said. "But they are characters I've invented out of knowing Dan and Erastus, out of all the research I've done.''

They're back

Death, described here as "a black muse descending,'' is part of the landscape in Kennedy's fiction. The second chapter of "Roscoe'' focuses on Elisha Fitzgibbon's wake at the family manse and orchid conservatory, a device for introducing characters and the labyrinthine history of Kennedy's Albany cycle of novels.

Patsy McCall, the political boss based on Dan O'Connell and the central character in Kennedy's play "Grand View,'' is a central character. So, too, is Patsy's police chief stooge, O.B., who is never called by his full name of Oswald Brian Conway.

Martin Daugherty from "The Flaming Corsage'' reappears. We meet Walter Farley, a former Times Union editor who backed McCall even after his newspaper uncovered a boxer's house in the city that purported to contain the names of 120 registered Democrats. At the wake, old bums needing some hooch try to put the touch on Patsy for a fiver.

Beer and politics, the domain of the O'Connells, flows at every turn of the story.

"The pain is better, but the gin is gone,'' Roscoe tells the nun in the hospital.

Kennedy told the audience he rewrites constantly on his novels and likes to surprise himself with narrative twists, "even though I pretty much know how it's going to end at this point.''

The real vanishes

Kennedy said the research process is ongoing and he interviewed a judge that very afternoon. But he wants to use historical material only as a sparkplug and has learned to avoid the over-researching that caused him to feel like a flooded engine while writing the novel "Legs.''

"No matter how much I try to stay with the real world, it vanishes,'' he said.

Although he just finished a screenplay for "The Flaming Corsage'' and plans to write another play, no form compares to the novel.

"The novel is the biggest challenge,'' he said. "It's a killer. Any other kind of writing is easier. The novel is so big and daunting you have to know everything about your characters before you start.''

After a 40-year learning curve on "Roscoe,'' Kennedy has finally taken the plunge into his big political novel. We'll be hearing more of what he's discovered at the core of all those boxes of notes.

First published on Tuesday, July 28, 1998

Copyright 1998, Capital Newspapers Division
of The Hearst Corporation, Albany, N.Y.

William Kennedy