Literature: Kennedy's Quidditas

There's a law that says you can't write about William
Kennedy without invoking William Faulkner or James Joyce, or both, the idea being
that if a novelist returns to a place in a number of works over time he is not so
much writing books as re-creating history into myth or some such. Fine. Granting
the core differences--these are three singular sensibilities with deeply
divergent artistic ambitions--we can agree that Kennedy's literary imagination,
like those of Faulkner and Joyce, flourishes in the contemplation of character and
situation constrained by historical--and therefore, significantly,
geographical--particulars.

As Joyce did with Dublin and Faulkner with his invented Yoknapatawpha
County, so Kennedy has over a number of novels reared up a place in time--Albany,
New York, mainly in the first half of the twentieth century--that may host
universal human struggles but is not the world writ small; that is,
rather, its own unique locale and has, to use a word that Joyce's Stephen
Daedalus liked, its own quidditas.

Where Albany is concerned, this quidditas has everything to do with the
generational concentration of its Irish population and the particular inflection
that this has imparted to social and political relations. No, inflection
is too mild here--the stronger word would be stamp or cast. In a
sense, everything in William Kennedy's created world flows forth from the premise
of the Irish character--its family-revering clannishness; its parochial
suspiciousness; its grievance-hoarding, sin-believing, thing-rooted obstinacy;
its flaring sentimental romanticism. I know that such attributions violate every
last canon of correctness, but it is hard to get hold of Kennedy's vision without
them. Fanciful or founded, they underwrite his vision.

Kennedy has been channeling the Albany Irish from the very start, in novels
like The Ink Truck (1969), Legs (1975), and Billy Phelan's
Greatest Game
(1978). He achieved his first--but meteoric--notoriety in 1983
with the success (Pulitzer Prize, National Book Critics Circle Award, MacArthur
Foundation grant) of Ironweed, the beyond-hard-luck saga of Francis
Phelan, a good drinking man gone irretrievably into the bottle after
accidentally killing his baby boy. Here was a rendition of sorrow that plumbed to
the very limits of family feeling.

Ironweed was intelligently packaged by Kennedy's publisher with two
earlier works, Legs and Billy Phelan's Greatest Game, as the
centerpiece of what is often called his "Albany trilogy," giving the author the
beginnings of his Faulknerian claim on locale. Subsequent novels-- including the
more historico-mythic Quinn's Book (1988), Very Old Bones (1992),
and The Flaming Corsage (1996)--solidified that reputation, as did the
publication of O Albany! (1983), a study of the history and politics of
his native city. In that work, Kennedy drew heavily on his own family's insider
legacy: The Kennedy clan, through the author's father and uncles, has had a
long-standing tentacular connection to Albany politics.

Where there are Irish, it's safe to say, there is politics, especially of the
local stripe. There is no group more prone to complex affiliation. But
interestingly enough--O Albany! aside--until Roscoe, his newest novel,
was published this winter, Kennedy had never put politics squarely at the center
of one of his works. Reading Roscoe, I began to understand why. Under the
fictional microscope--the lenses necessarily ground to capture reality from the
perspective of the individual, the self--politics, at least the root-level local
kind, keeps dissolving back into the personal. Kennedy locates this point of
slippage in the lives of his characters and explores the implications with great
resourcefulness and wit.

Roscoe is a story of alliance and misalliance within Albany's
Democratic machine in 1945. The novel opens on V-J Day, August 14, at a moment
of imminent political turmoil. Kennedy establishes his links and lineages, sets
out his panorama, with a practiced anecdotal ease. All is character and
relationship. At the center of the novel--its very axis--is Roscoe Conway,
middle-aged party secretary and go-to guy. With him, just off stage, are his two
oldest friends, Patsy McCall (based on legendary longtime party boss Dan
O'Connell) and Elisha Fitzgibbon. All three are sons of influential Albany pols
and moneymen (Roscoe's father, Felix, was city mayor three times before being
thrown from office); they all came up together and have kept their fortunes
tightly connected. The ascendancy of the new generation--perpetuation of the
old--is figured in Elisha's son Alex, a war hero on his way back home to reclaim
his post as mayor.

Rumor is strong that the Republicans in the governor's mansion are poised to
launch a major crackdown on vice--Albany has a flourishing brothel business--in a
pre-election bid to discredit the Democrats. This tension opens the novel. But
even before any such initiative is launched, Roscoe receives a late-night call
from Elisha's secretary: Her boss is dead in his office, victim of a possible
heart attack, more likely a suicide. A cryptic message--"Roscoe will figure
things out"--intimates scandal and urges Roscoe to find a way to set things right.

The scandal turns out to be a complex paternity-custody claim that would take
paragraphs to explicate. The basic upshot, however, is that the suicide and
ensuing events pull Roscoe both back into the romantic orbit of
Veronica--Elisha's widow, but also his own abiding true love--and into the
deepest zone of intrigue, the place where family secrets intersect with the
publicity machine as it is wielded by powers on both sides of the political
divide. If Roscoe does not have a full-tilt plot so much as a densely
interwoven set of episodes, it nevertheless generates an impression of great and
subtly purposeful social intricacy. What the reader takes from all of this, aside
from the satisfactions of gossip and speculation, is what might be called the
"ant farm" epiphany of urban political life: the recognition that everything
depends on a scurry of figures and motives so ramified as to be nearly
incomprehensible. Except, that is, by those few who have the gift--who understand
the chaos-theory dimensions of the web and the play of influences between
individuals and families, through neighborhoods and districts, and who can read
instinctively the current flow of power in its myriad forms.

Roscoe is such a one. Bluff and blustery, savvy and conniving,
discomfited by what he knows of ceaseless political leveraging--he tells everyone
he knows that he is getting out of politics--but unable to keep his own hands
off, he is an ideal protagonist. Through Roscoe, Kennedy can explore the
ambivalence that for the sensitive onlooker must attend all manifestations of
power and influence--the age-old "disconnect" between means and ends. Indeed, the
disaffected Roscoe proves himself to be something of a philosopher on this very
subject. Writes Kennedy:


Roscoe certainly did not invent the perverse forces that drive
human beings, and he can't explain any of them. He believes they are a mystery
of nature. He concedes that a morally pure society, with candidates unblemished
by sin and vice, might possibly exist somewhere, though he has never seen or
heard of one, and can't really imagine what one would be like. "But I'll keep
looking," he concludes.

Or, elsewhere:


... if a man insists on dealing only with honest men he'll have
to stop dealing. Roscoe knows how honest men think and it is terrifying... . And
a man ought not be simply good, but good for something, and so Roscoe will try to
succeed by making it a practice to be honest whenever it seems feasible.

Yet for all of his moral practicality, Roscoe is ultimately
heart-driven and heart-guided. His actions derive from his loyalties and his
loyalties from his deep affections--for Elisha, for Patsy, for Veronica. All his
deals and muscled arm-twistings, and especially his tour-de-force legal sleights
of hand to save Veronica and her adopted son from her venal sister and his own
ex-wife, Pamela, reveal a man acting at every turn to protect his own. Principle
has little to do with it. Politics is, for Roscoe, merely primary human
relationships carried on by other means. There is no mention anywhere in the
novel of anyone standing for a dream or an ideal, for anything more abstract than
a reduction of property tax or an increase in protection.

Kennedy does a masterful job of cross-sectioning this middle-aged man,
exposing the intricate layering of emotional, physical, and, yes, spiritual
imperatives. At no point do we lose sight of the battered appetitive being, the
rogue who can tell his longtime mistress, Hattie: "I change like a turnip growing
ever larger, ever rounder, and palatable only when seriously boiled." At no point
do we feel that he is a schematic figure or, worse, a pretext for the author to
moralize on the nature of politics.

Years ago, I had an argument with a friend--a man now known in certain
circles, only half jokingly, as "the last Marxist." He insisted on the primary
conditioning power of the great forces: market and ideology. I countered him with
my naive Chekhovianism, my idea that everything is finally, always, irreducibly
personal. Situations, I argued, are always concrete, and motives are unfailingly
bedded in the vagaries of the subjective. My friend was much smarter--he
instructed me until my head was spinning. I went home feeling chagrined.

Yet here, reading Roscoe, every page of which maps the pressure points
of an intimate political sphere, I felt that I was somehow reframing my point,
coming back to rebut the last Marxist. For if Kennedy is to be believed, if
Roscoe is to be believed, and if the old adage "All politics is local" is to be
heeded, then indeed the other great popular assumption can be challenged. If the
personal is the political, then isn't the opposite also true? Seen closely
enough, seen comprehensively enough, the political seems to disappear into the
personal. Politics is not an absolute category, but a way of getting things done.
How readily we forget this. Somehow it seems right that an Irishman should be
telling us this, an Irishman with a deep understanding of the intersecting
hierarchies. There are facts and there are truths. Give Roscoe the last word:
"The turf below, the sky above, are true. It's true only if you can't fix it.
Everybody in the cemetery is true." Politics is about fixing things, and in this
deepest sense, it can't be true.

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