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O Albany!


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.

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