In a new book of essays entitled Reading William Kennedy (Syracuse University Press), Michael Patrick Gillespie writes that Kennedy’s novels are infused with Catholic dogma; however, a broad, more diverse ethical system than that articulated in The Baltimore Catechism informs his writing.
That’s putting it mildly.
Roscoe, Kennedy’s seventh novel in his Albany cycle, is another lively look at political fixers and prostitutes, barflies and ghosts. This time around, Kennedy also unspools a fantastical yarn of scandal, sex and dysfunctional families worthy of Sophocles, or Jerry Springer. But this is also Kennedy’s closest look yet at politics, as well as ethics, which (contrary to all available evidence) he convinces us are intimately related.
As such, Roscoe can be seen as a meditation on a specifically American Catholic kind of pragmatism. Unlike past works, such as his Pulitzer-prize winning Ironweed or Legs, the main characters in Roscoe are not Irish gangsters or hobos. They are wealthy, educated and powerful machine Democrats. Yet their worldview is still informed by a legacy of standing on the outside, looking in.
Thus, to Kennedy’s titular, Falstaffian hero, honesty is the best policy for people striving to be poor. Warned in a dream that ignorance of moral law is no excuse, Roscoe Conway replies, No, but it’s a living. This is not just a lovable scoundrel; Roscoe’s wit springs from fierce, finely honed survival instincts. In a brilliant digression, he recalls learning from the Christian Brothers that fraudulence [is] a golden tool. After acing a test, young Roscoe stands accused of cheating. Having intentionally performed sufficient[ly] to pass but not excel on a follow-up, he is declared normalwholesomely mediocre. We won’t prosecute him for sinful superiority.
This passage could cut too close to the bone for some Irish Catholics, who still debate the legacies of their church and political machines. Did Catholicism support or suppress them? Did urban machines offer upward mobility at the expense of more noble ambitions?
At under 300 pages, Roscoe does not have the sweep to plumb these deep questions. Which is just as well. With poetry and pizzazz, Kennedy transcends history as deftly as he captures it. In doing so he has created that rare thing: an enlightening, original book on politics.
Kennedy is mercifully uninterested in the politics of morality that we know so dreadfully well from Hollywood melodrama. He is interested in people: the voters, bootleggers and mayors whose vices and virtues influence politics, not (solely) vice-versa. Roscoe Conway, meanwhile, is no political Robin Hood. He is a melancholy romantic and a calculating cutthroat, whose own political brilliance ultimately leaves a hole in his heartliterally and figuratively.
Roscoe opens in 1945. The revelry of V-J Day overshadows the fact that the Republican governor is again targeting Albany’s Democrats, whom Kennedy has modeled after the infamous soldiers of legendary boss Dan O’Connell. Amid this, chieftain Roscoeson of a three-time mayor, who never ran for office himselfproclaims he’s done with politics, sick of carrying time around on my back like a bundle of rocks.
Roscoe’s heart, we learn, was broken when the love of his life, Veronica, married a better-bred political pal, Elisha. Roscoe then married Veronica’s sister, to disastrous results.
After Elisha hears Roscoe’s plans, he again one-ups his friend: he commits suicide. Denied his last hurrah, Roscoe’s political instincts kick in. They are nearly as strong as his conflicted emotions; the love of his life, after all, is now a widow.
Veronica, meanwhile, has been dragged into a salacious lawsuit involving a family inheritance and her never-officially adopted son. Kennedy delights in ratcheting up the spicy plot twists, throwing even a dashing Russian prince into the mix.
The shenanigans of Albany’s rich and famous do, at times, become tiresome. Nevertheless, the stakes in Roscoe are high and emotionally heartfelt. Veronica may lose the boy she loves. Battling health woes, Roscoe’s brilliant, deceitful mind is called upon to save the daybut at a terrible price.
All in all, Kennedy is at the top of his game with Roscoe. The prose is not as lush as in previous Albany novels. Instead, it is appropriately punchy. Occasionally, the dialogue seems too lofty (I have to change my life, do something that engages my soul, Roscoe proclaims), but more often it is crisp and allusive.
It is important, also, that Roscoe not be seen solely as Kennedy’s great book on politics. In one scene, which initially seems merely a colorful detour, Roscoe attends a cockfight. Quickly it becomes clear what a powerful metaphor Kennedy hasfor human nature as well as politics. That Kennedy also hangs a tragic plot line on such an absurd thing as a fixed cockfight is a testament to his achievement.
Roscoe’s conclusion is perhaps Kennedy’s only false note. The ailing boss fades into twilight to ponder one mess he could not fix. It’s a neat fit thematically and emotionally but, given the novel’s plentiful chicanery, relies on an ill-fitting bit of moral rectitude. Which may be the point. Either way, as Roscoe closes, Kennedy has poetically illustrated a particularly Irish (if not necessarily Catholic) notion, one that he has spent his career exploring to the great benefit of his readers. Call it Kennedy’s Law: that which blesses you today may kill you tomorrow.