William Kennedy’s Roscoe

Written by William Bryk on . Posted in Opinion and Column, Posts.

Kennedy may
have begun with facts. His novel is full of historical figures, from FDR and
Al Smith to Herbert H. Lehman to John McCooey and John Curry, the onetime Democratic
bosses of Brooklyn and Manhattan. Of course, these are all invented characters,
just like the other invented characters.

Yet, having
been born and raised within 10 miles of the city of Albany, I know many of his
other invented characters are closely modeled on once-living persons. A knowing
Albanian might read a William Kennedy novel merely to pick out the old pols,
pimps and hangers-on. This would be vulgar and more than a bit of a mistake.
I admit indulging in it anyway. Thus, in reflecting on Kennedy’s fictional
political boss, Patsy McCall, I think of the great Dan O’Connell, who ruled
Albany’s Democratic Party and thus Albany for more than half a century.
He had a certain knack for massaging election results. Mario Cuomo once told
a story about Dan being marooned on a desert island with another fellow, and
only one coconut between them. They voted on who should eat it, and Dan won
by 110 to 1.

Happily, for
those who may not know the "Improbable City of Political Wizards, Fearless
Ethnics, Spectacular Aristocrats, Splendid Nobodies, and Underrated Scoundrels,"
the book stands on its own. It has been six years since his last novel: Kennedy
has used his time well. He is among the handful of important contemporary novelists
trained in the old school of journalism, the discipline of publishing facts
with an economy of words to a daily deadline. And it is honorable praise to
note that even his lesser books are exquisitely finished and all have integrity,
for they are the work of an honest man.

is a novel set in the summer and fall of 1945, in which Roscoe Conway, lawyer,
orator and Democratic political operative, attempts to escape from the life
he has made. This summary does not hint at the amazing tangle of subplots, from
fixing elections to child custody suits, suicides, payoffs, assaults, brothel
raids, cockfighting, murder, sibling rivalry and gambling rings. Yet, the narrative
is not confusing. Kennedy’s art captures the essence of life–just
one damned thing after another, with nothing ever finally resolved but merely
overcome for the moment.

In reflecting
on the novel, I flipped back to his author’s note. I found it poignant
for personal reasons. One of his sources was the first politician to give me
an interview, when I was writing for the Shaker High School Bison in
1971. Erastus Corning 2nd (he preferred the Arabic to the Roman numeral) was
elected mayor of Albany 11 times before his death in May 1983. No American mayor
has served longer. As Kennedy notes in O Albany!, his offbeat history
of the city, Corning held power "longer than Trujillo, Franco, Perón,
Batista, Somoza, Napoleon, Hitler, Mao Tse-tung, Catherine the Great, Peter
the Great, Henry VIII, Ferdinand and Isabella, Ethelred II, and…Augustus Caesar."
Even at 16, I found the urbane man across the table from me both a great gentleman
and one of the toughest guys I would ever meet. Thirty years have passed, and
I am still right–on both counts.

unusual first name (after 40 years in office, some believed his real first name
was "Mayor") is a Latinized version of the Greek erastos, meaning
beloved. He was brilliant (Yale ’32, Phi Beta Kappa, with a dual major
in history and English literature), precocious (assemblyman at 26, state senator
at 27, mayor at 32) and hardworking (he routinely worked 60-hour weeks). He
inherited wealth and made more through his political connections (his insurance
agency, Albany Associates, wrote 90 percent of Albany County’s insurance,
meaning some $1.5 million in annual premiums; as he was a city official, not
a county official, the law found no conflict of interest).

At the height
of his power, his authority over the city and the county of Albany was absolute.
A local newscaster once told him on camera, "…you hold such power that
if you told the Common Council to meet in pink lingerie, they would." Corning
replied, "I think you go too far. In blue lingerie, perhaps, but pink is
too much."

Kennedy has
written elsewhere that Corning was uninterested in the truth. I disagree: Corning’s
capacity for deceit was merely another weapon in his intellectual arsenal. Like
Talleyrand (who would have found him a kindred spirit), Corning believed language
existed to conceal truth. Most people who rely on lies to get through the day
eventually lose touch with truth. Corning never did. After all, you do not have
to believe your own lies. When lucidity was required, his gifts for written
and oral expression made him utterly, often brilliantly, clear. The same gifts
let him obscure, obfuscate and evade. At the height of his power, he played
the press and the people like grand pianos. Even Kennedy was not exempt. The
story goes that some 40 years ago, as a working reporter for the Albany Times-Union,
during a mayoral press conference, Kennedy told Corning that a recent visitor
had said the abandoned buildings in Albany made it look like a ghost town or
a demolition project, and how did he respond. The Mayor replied that a well-known
television commentator had come to Albany and seen all the construction and
said it was one of the most vital, growing cities in the Northeast. After the
press conference, Kennedy asked the Mayor, "Who was the well-known television
commentator?" And the Mayor asked, "Who was the recent visitor?"

I can still
imagine the Mayor’s sparkling joy as he declaimed his most famous epigram,
"Honesty is no substitute for experience." How could any intelligent
man with a sense of humor resist a politician so brazen, so magnificently audacious,
so in command of his wit that when asked his favorite color replied, "Plaid."

Corning, who
was elected mayor in 1941, did not seek a draft deferment, and served as a combat
infantryman in Europe. In Roscoe, Kennedy creates a character, Alexander
Fitzgibbon, whose personal and political careers are nearly identical to Corning’s.
The resemblances are purely intentional. So are the resemblances between numerous
persons and characters. Dan O’Connell seized power over the Democratic
Party and then over the city and the county of Albany with the help of his brothers
between 1919 and 1921. So had Patsy McCall, the crude, violent, corrupt party
boss in Kennedy’s novel, who has been "in politics since he was old
enough to deface Republican ballots." But to suggest that Kennedy has merely
copied the facts and changed the names is wrongheaded. In fact, Fitzgibbon and
McCall, despite Kennedy’s artistry, are simply not as tough or as coarse
as their models. It would be difficult for them to be. No one would believe

At its heart,
the novel lives in a corrupt world. Thus, Kennedy quotes Roscoe’s dead
father, Felix Conway, a disgraced ex-mayor, in a passage, "Felix Declares
His Principles to Roscoe": "Never buy anything that you can rent forever."
This has particular resonance in Albany County: a wonderful scandal of my youth
dealt with a Democratic loyalist contractor who leased a Jeep to the city for
$988 a month. He had paid $800 for it used.

Also: "Give
your friends jobs, but at a price and make new friends every day." This
may explain why, for example, the Empire State Bldg. employed 60 janitors for
102 floors while the Albany County Courthouse employed 72 for six. Every year,
the county employees contributed three percent of their salary to the organization.
You did not need to shake down the banks for campaign funds if your own people
provided the loaves and fishes.

And: "People
say voting the dead is immoral, but what the hell, if they were alive they’d
all be Democrats. Just because they’re dead don’t mean they’re
Republicans." On a similar note, I recall reading about a state investigation
in the 1940s into the 78 voters registered out of a single Albany boarding house.
The investigator found only 22 cots. The landlord explained that the voters
slept in eight-hour shifts. This meant that 12 guys had to sleep standing up.

Finally, Kennedy’s
pols, though drawn with affection, are never twinkling benignities out of a
Frank Capra movie. This is as it should be: machine politicians liked to think
of themselves as means of rough justice, bringing coal and food to the poor.
They never considered that the reforms they opposed might have obviated the
handouts. Albany’s machine bosses were tough, ruthless men for whom democracy
was always spelled with a capital D and politics merely another way of making
a living.

Stendhal used
the word crystallization to define the process by which the creative
mind transforms mere fact to fiction. The analogy was drawn from certain German
salt mines, where one might leave behind a tree branch and on returning some
years later, find it encrusted with salt crystals. So Kennedy’s memories
of a small American city have been transformed by time and imagination into
enduring art.