The Magazine

All Albany's Men

William Kennedy returns to his novels about New York pols.

Feb 25, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 23 • By LAUREN WEINER
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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.