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Roscoe Paperback – November 26, 2002
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From The New Yorker
Roscoe Owen Conway, fifty-five, fat, and in failing health, is the brains who protects and preserves Albany's Democratic Party, and, as Kennedy's seventh "Albany Cycle" novel opens, Roscoe has plenty of protecting and preserving to do. It's V-J Day, 1945, and though the war in the Pacific is over, the war at home has just begun: the Democratic machine is facing a stiff challenge from the state's Republican governor, who is determined to link Albany's mayor to gambling, prostitution, and a host of other behaviors that the electorate might well frown upon. When Elisha Fitzgibbon, the city's major Democratic funder and one of Roscoe's oldest friends, commits suicide, it looks as if the city's entire political tapestry might unravel. But Roscoe empties out his bag of tricks, enlisting informants, greasing palms, and setting up secret meetings, all the while courting Veronica, Elisha's widow and his longtime love. Thick with crime, passion, and backroom banter, "Roscoe" neatly reverses the insularity of Kennedy's previous novel ("The Flaming Corsage"); the book, and its hero, is an extrovert's dream.
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker
"Driven by a narrative electricity as alive as post-war America. Roscoe is Kennedy's finest novel since Ironweed." —The Boston Globe
"This is a novel that, as they say, has it all.... Kennedy is a writer with something to say, about matters that touch us all, and he does it with uncommon artistry." —Michael Thomas, The Washington Post
"A beaut, deadly serious high comedy propelled by soaring flights of linguistic legerdemain." —Ward Just, The New York Times Book Review
"This new book has a lyricism and a gusto rarely achieved in serious American novels about politics.... Roscoe may, in fact, be Kennedy's greatest." —Tom Mallon, The Atlantic Monthly
"An exuberant portrait of political and sexual intrigue. Its politics are backroom and bare-knuckle, all about power and money." —USA Today
"William Kennedy writes so melodiously about the Irish ruffians of old Albany, NY he could make Philip Roth wish he were Catholic." —San Francisco Chronicle
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If you think violent drug crime is a new problem in our country, you are in for a big surprise. Kennedy's characters of 80 some years ago make todays drive by shootings look like kid stuff.
John Dwaine McKenna
I don’t know about you, but from my point of view, it seems like these days are dominated politics. We’re being force-fed a steady diet of it, like geese being prepared for goose-liver pate’ in a gourmet restaurant, at least until the fall slaughter, er, ah, I meant to say election, when it will all be over after a lot of squawking, feathers and hatchet jobs. With that in mind, I thought it would be fun to do something different in this weeks MBR, and review a non-mystery. And yep, you guessed it . . . it’s about politics. You didn’t think I gave you that lead-in for nothing, did you?
The novel is titled Roscoe, (Viking, 2002, $24.95, 291 pages, ISBN 0-670-03029-5) by William Kennedy, who lives and writes inAlbany,New York.
Roscoe is the seventh novel in what is called the Albany Cycle by Kennedy, who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Ironweed, the third work in the group. It was made into an award-winning movie starring Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep, and responsible for making homelessness into a front-burner issue with the American public.
Roscoe Conway is a kingmaker, the so called, “man-behind-the-throne,” who makes and implements policy, as well as strategizing for the king. Roscoe is the brain-trust for the political machine that controls the Democrat party in Albany during the 1920’s and
30’s . . . thus controlling the office of the Governor, and all the political appointments for New York State.
As the book begins, it’s VJ day, WWII has ended and Roscoe has decided to quit politics forever, because he recognizes that the game is changing, and he no longer has the heart, or the stomach for it. When word leaks out about his decision however, threats of retaliation against him and his family begin. And Roscoe, a man without scruples finds himself ensnared; he’s a victim of his own deviousness and the man who points out that “The truth is in the details, even if you invent the details,” is faced with the realization that his problems in the present, all tie-in with his deeds of the past, as he recounts them one-by-one. Roscoe is on my list of the year’s Best Books for 2008, and I find it no less compelling when revisiting it today. Truth be told, I highly recommend these four books of the Albany Cycle: Leg’s, Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game, Ironweed, and Roscoe to everyone with an interest in history,New York State and great writing. You’ll love the details, whether made up or real.
Kennedy's Albany circa 1945 is a city crammed with incident. There are police shootings, bordello busts, cockfights, blackmail, bondage and all kind of corruption which Conway in his unruffled way must sort out and keep from upsetting the gravy train Albany has become for him and his Democratic Party apparatchiks. When his best friend suddenly turns up dead, an apparent suicide, Conway must work out why it happened and what it could mean for the friend's wife, whom Conway has always loved and who is locked in a custody battle for the boy she raised as her son.
"Roscoe" is wholly sympathetic to Roscoe's outlook no matter the graft he collects or elections he steals. Basically, we are meant to see him as a good man, "Falstaffian" as he is described on the dust jacket. Sure, he lies like the devil, but as presented by Kennedy he's on the side of the angels, or as close to the angels as it is possible to be on this earth.
"A lie, after all, is only another way of affirming the desirable," Conway affirms near the end of the novel. "A live lie is better than a dead truth, and there is no ultimate wall that the creative individual cannot breach through deceit."
Or as he puts it earlier: "Life without gravy is not life."
I wanted to like this novel more than I did. Alas, it has a few strikes against it. One is it's less self-contained than earlier Kennedy novels like "Ironweed." Much of the backstory requires knowledge of Kennedy's other Albany novels, particularly "Legs," which dealt with the life and death of 1920s gangster Jack "Legs" Diamond and who pops up here basically as a flashback device.
Another, the biggest as I see it, is the story goes too far along various tangents, like the threat of investigation from state Republicans, brothers whose feud over cockfight chicanery threatens the power structure, and two police officers who have a bloody falling out. There are a slew of other minor characters who make "Roscoe" as crowded as a Dickens novel. Kennedy can't help but entertain you with all the balls he keeps in the air, but all that you really need here in the way of story is Conway's investigation of his friend's apparent suicide, Conway's working out of his feelings about the friend's widow, and his handling of the custody case of the widow's son.
When Kennedy is focused on one or more of these three things, he's brilliant, amusing, and romantic, sometimes all at once. When he's filling out another corner of his Albany portrait, he's less on point.
One problem that may not be a problem is the way Kennedy embraces Conway's lifestyle of "wretched excess," suggesting it is a life well-lived because it is being lived on his terms. Kennedy brings us around to Conway's way of thinking through stream-of-consciousness narratives, including a brief dream sequence that opens every chapter. You come to see Conway's point of view, even as you wonder if an author less sympathetic to it might do more to challenge it and force Conway to confront some unpleasant realities rather than reward him for his clever lies.