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 …