WILLIAM KENNEDY'S NOVELS SET IN HIS HOMETOWN HAVE PUT ALBANY - AND HIMSELF - ON THE MAP
Author: By Mark Feeney,
Globe Staff Date: 01/29/2002 Page: E1 Section: Living
Set mostly in 1945, "Roscoe" luxuriates in the doings of Albany's Democratic machine (the title character is a behind-the-scenes political fixer). It's Kennedy's seventh novel about his hometown. It joins such distinguished predecessors as "Billy Phelan's Greatest Game" (1978), the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Ironweed" (1983), and "Very Old Bones" (1992).
A trim, jaunty man, Kennedy carries himself like a retired boxer. He may have aged (he just turned 74) but looks as if he could still go a few rounds and come out ahead on points. He's a guy who stays on the balls of his feet, figuratively as well as literally. Instead of goodbye, he tells people, "See you around" - and when he says "see," you get the sense he means just that. This isn't someone who misses much.
Of course, whatever he does miss, he gets paid to make up. That's the beauty of being a novelist: Not only are you allowed to fabricate, you're encouraged to. It's a bit like being a politician, actually. (As the new novel's title character notes, "It was sweet the way true and fraudulent facts wrapped themselves around each other so sleekly.") "Roscoe is a potential novelist," his creator proudly confides. "I might not have been unhappy in the political machine," Kennedy says. "It had a great dynamic. The chances of being bored were minimal."
Boredom would appear to be something alien to Kennedy. "He brings an energy with him," says Paul Grondahl, a friend and the author of a biography of Erastus Corning II, who was Albany's mayor from 1941 to 1983 (that tenure gives you some idea how smoothly the machine ran things). "He brings a lot of excitement to town. . . . He's always the last one to close things down."
Kennedy has a toothy grin, and it's never long absent. He speaks in an amiable growl, his voice the texture of very fine-grained sandpaper. It's a storyteller's voice: comfortable, confident, unhurried. He clearly enjoys being onstage but has little interest in showstopping. He's just as comfortable off to the side as he is front and center, well aware that outside the spotlight it's easier to enjoy the audience's response as well as the actors' performance. It's the perfect William Kennedy place to be: out of the way yet in the swirl (just like Albany).
Kennedy gets into the city three to five times a week. His office is there, in the house where the gangster Legs Diamond was killed in 1931. Kennedy owns the property, a rare instance of a literary debt repaid via real estate transaction: Diamond provided Kennedy with the hero of his first Albany novel, "Legs" (1975). Kennedy is working with Ed Burns on a screen adaptation, with Burns in the title role and directing.
There's also the New York State Writers Institute. Begun by Kennedy in 1983 with money he received from a MacArthur Foundation "genius" fellowship, the institute looms large in the city's cultural life with its sponsorship of readings, symposia, and film series. "He remains the guiding force that draws people there," says Grondahl.
Back across the Hudson, in Averill Park, Kennedy and his wife, Dana, own a house built in 1844. They've lived there almost 40 years. One daughter lives in a house just up the hill; another is half a mile away. The Kennedys also have a son, who lives in New York City.
Kennedy and his wife met in Puerto Rico in 1956. Thirty-six days after being introduced, they married. Kennedy was in San Juan as a newspaperman. He had grown up in Albany's North End, graduated from nearby Siena College, and served in the Army. He worked as a reporter for the local paper, the Times-Union. "I didn't get rich," Kennedy recalls. "But I had a helluva good time."
Growing restive with Albany, he sought a sunnier clime. The move proved crucial, for along with a wife Kennedy also found a mentor: Saul Bellow. He took a writing class at the University of San Juan with the future Nobelist, who encouraged Kennedy in his ambition to become a novelist. He moved back to Albany, worked part-time for the Times-Union, and published his first novel, "The Ink Truck" (1969), about a newspaper strike.
Kennedy had returned to Albany for family reasons (his father was ill), but he soon found that the city he'd been glad to get away from looked very different to him. "I think having left Albany is the best way to appreciate it: coming back," says Jack McEneny, a local historian and friend of Kennedy's who represents the city in the state Assembly. "He saw Albany in a new light. He had something to compare it to."
Kennedy realized the city was a great subject. It took a little while for the realization to become widespread, however. Though his next two books met with good reviews, 13 publishers rejected "Ironweed." It took a chastising letter from Bellow to Viking, which had published "Legs" and "Billy Phelan's Greatest Game," to get the manuscript accepted.
Then everything changed. There was the MacArthur, a National Book Critics Circle prize for fiction for "Ironweed," the Pulitzer, and a torrent of publicity. Kennedy collaborated with Francis Ford Coppola on the screenplay for "The Cotton Club" (1984) and adapted "Ironweed" for the screen. The 1987 movie starred Jack Nicholson; and in his biography of Bellow, James Atlas describes the day when a white stretch limousine pulled up at the writer's Vermont summer house and out popped Nicholson and Kennedy.
That's what it was like back then. "Life without gravy is not life," Roscoe says in the new novel. Kennedy had gravy in abundance. "It was unbelievable when `Ironweed' happened," he says.
It was showtime (Kennedy laughs when he hears the phrase), an exceedingly rare experience for a serious author. While he has continued to enjoy critical and commercial success, there's been nothing since quite like that lining up of the literary planets. Does it seem like an aberration? A distraction? An extravaganza?
"That was certainly one of the most extraordinary times of my life," Kennedy says. "The adulation, the money that came in, the sales, the international acclaim, all that was not expected. But it was the kind of realization that this is what you dream about. You can't even dream some of those things. But you wake up from the dream and you're still where you were when you went to sleep. And you wake up and go to work again."
As remarkable as the success was the fact that Kennedy didn't flame out or let it go to his head. "One of the reasons he's popular here, even with people who don't bother to read his works, is he's still Bill Kennedy," says McEneny. "He's a person who, when the world caught on, he didn't change."
One big change occurred well before "Ironweed." When Kennedy returned to Albany in the early '60s, he was a self-proclaimed enemy of its political machine and wrote muckracking articles for the Times-Union. "It was a closed shop. The boys ran it, and that was it," Kennedy explains. "It's a totally different operation now. It's very open, progressive, but it's still Irish Catholic." The Republicans, he notes with approval, "still don't make a dent in Albany."
Kennedy comes by his affinity for politics almost as a birthright. "I grew up among the lesser politicians, like my father in his later years [who was a deputy sheriff]. My great-uncle was a [Democratic] committeeman. My father's first cousin ran the county nursing home. A couple of other great-uncles worked in City Hall. Another great-uncle was sheriff for a while. I grew up next to the ward leader in my own neighborhood. It would be second nature to know politicians. They held no mystery for me after awhile. . . . But when I began to write about it I realized how little I knew about all the motivations of these people, how they stayed in power, what their roles were."
"All politics is local," Tip O'Neill liked to say, an opinion Roscoe would be the first to second. Literature, though, is the opposite. An author too rooted in the local courts parochialism. Does Kennedy ever fear he's too identified with Albany, trapped in his teeming little metropolis hard by the Hudson?
He shakes his head emphatically. "I feel no pigeonholing at all. I mean, others may pigeonhole me, but what can you do about that? But I don't feel restricted. I think a good many people are seeing this cycle of novels as not strictly a regional group of works. The essential element of literature is that your material is a starting point, and what you're trying to do is transcend the material and get somewhere else: a universe you can imagine. People don't need to have an affection for Albany in order to like my novels."
As if to prove the point, Kennedy thinks his next book might be set in contemporary Cuba. He does add, though, "It would still be related, in some way, to Albany."