All Albany's Men
William Kennedy returns to his novels about New York pols.
Feb 25, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 23 • By LAUREN WEINER
THE CRITIC William Pritchard probably did not mean to lay down a law of literary excellence when, in his recent study of John Updike, he spoke of "a reader who knows what fairness is and wants fiction to observe something like ideal balance." The ideal balance to which Pritchard refers is the balance between mercy and justice--between engendering our sympathy for fictional characters and holding them accountable for the words they are assigned to say and the deeds they are assigned to perform.
William Kennedy's novels set in early- and mid-twentieth-century Albany, New York, try to perch on this difficult seesaw. Kennedy, to his credit, is not a writer who considers moral questions pass . He searches for a balance that will come across as true and credible.
Unfortunately, what he attempts in his fiction is undone by his way of doing that fiction, and the result is tilted far over to one side. Several ingratiating yarns in his Albany cycle--"Legs" (1975), "Billy Phelan's Greatest Game" (1978), and "Ironweed," which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1984--bring the city's pool sharks, political bosses, bootleggers, and bums colorfully to life. Colorfully, but not entirely believably, because the novelist's probings of conscience--of what makes someone break the law, or ditch his family, or fail to become what he should have become--spray a fine sheen of exoneration over his characters.
It isn't necessarily intentional. Kennedy once said he borrows the Catholic definition of sin to avoid the "vapidity of guilt" he finds in much of modern literature. His Irish Catholic rogues and roustabouts spend a lot of time admonishing themselves. Francis Phelan of "Ironweed," a hot-tempered baseball player who squandered his chances in life, is the least self-deluding of Kennedy's creations. He is the most convincingly complex and the saddest, as well. But even with Francis, highly contrived use is made of a sinner's redeeming qualities.
So it is with "Roscoe," Kennedy's latest novel. Kennedy makes his Roscoe Owen Conway a smart lawyer and rueful observer of the human comedy. As the novel opens, we feel in good hands with this tough-but-tender "fixer," one of three lifelong friends running Albany's Democratic machine during and after World War II.
As we go along, though, false notes begin to sound. Roscoe, an aging tub of lard with a heart condition, has not ridden a horse for years, but when he suddenly decides to do so he rides like the wind and dismounts "gracefully." He's not just a stunning equestrian but a marksman of dead-on accuracy. And the biggest personal flaw of this power broker mired in the colorful illegalities of city politics is that he's just too darned honest. As for an old flame of Roscoe's, the extremely well-preserved wife of a recently deceased friend, "She felt blackly excited by his presence."
This unreal impressiveness of Roscoe Conway shouldn't be written off as Irish blarney on Kennedy's part--not entirely, anyway. Not when you consider how many "big authors" writing outside Irish-American terrain indulge in the same crass character-burnishing that Kennedy does. Think of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's hagiographic novel about Simon Bolivar, "The General in His Labyrinth," and "Cloudsplitter," Russell Banks's silly Robert Bly-ification of the abolitionist John Brown. Such books give off a distinct air of public-relations spin.
William Kennedy is the writer with the most interesting spin problem since, in his case, advocacy so often takes place on multiple levels: There is the advocacy engaged in by the author. And there is the placement, within several of these books, of a key character who is himself an advocate. "Legs," about the real-life gangster Jack "Legs" Diamond, is narrated by the gangster's attorney and pal, Marcus Gorman, who skillfully argues Diamond's case both in and out of the courtroom. The title character of "Billy Phelan's Greatest Game" has a columnist coming to his defense in the pages of the Albany Times Union.
"Legs" Diamond, Marcus Gorman, and Billy Phelan also figure in "Roscoe," a work that magnifies this phenomena yet further. The lawyer here pleads for clients both respectable and unsavory, but primarily offers an apologia for his own life: the pleader pleading for himself. As usual in a Kennedy novel, it is complicated because Roscoe feels remorse about participating in skulduggery to keep those no-good Republicans at bay and his clique on top, but he sees mitigating circumstances behind his failings and misdeeds.
In the old-fashioned world of this novel, traits like loyalty, discretion, and honor in war are presented as praiseworthy, and cowardice as blameworthy. Or are they? We are pressed to withhold judgment until we consider the context. In flashbacks, Roscoe revisits his youthful service in World War I. What he did looks like cowardice but is really something else. He was running toward the rear in flight, not from the Germans, but from rats that infested his camp and were swarming all over him. He strayed near the battle line and got hit by friendly fire. Back at headquarters he forged a battle citation for himself and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross based on the sham citation. Roscoe says:
"Fraudulent? Perhaps. But he was under direct fire at the German line, he was in the heavy action, and his own buddies shot and damn near killed him. Must we quibble about motives? When is a hero not a hero? If a hero falls alone in a trench does he make a heroic sound? Take a guess."
The episode has a Quixote-like charm, though the italics tug at the reader's sleeve in a manner characteristic of the entire Albany cycle. Consigliere Marcus Gorman sounded in "Legs," allowing as how the murderous sadist Diamond "was a liar, of course, a perjurer, all of that, but he was also a venal man of integrity, for he never ceased to renew his vulnerability to punishment, death and damnation."
In "Roscoe," the medal incident is offered as the skeleton in the closet that explains why Roscoe Conway chose to be a behind-the-scenes politico, legal beagle for Democrats in trouble, and dirty trickster instead of following in his father's footsteps by seeking elective office. Still other reasons Roscoe gave up his higher aspirations are thrown in later, muddying the impression originally given that the fake medal was decisive. The rehashing of decisions made, paths taken or not, feels not only ragged but like an overdraft on our sympathy account.
Weary of all the pay-offs, the rigged elections, the collusion with underworld types, Roscoe is left "awash in guilt, which he doesn't accept." It was "Life [that] made me do it.... I'm innocent. I would never do such things on my own. It's a trick. It's a trap to make me powerful, rich, and happy." This classic protesting-too-much is supposed to sound evasive of responsibility--but in an endearingly rascally way. And that's the weasely game that William Kennedy always ends up playing: His client is trying to beat the rap but, in a way, not really--which means he really deserves to beat the rap, right?
Lauren Weiner is a writer working in Washington, D.C.