on September 27, 2003
Set in one of this country's oldest and most enduring political towns, Roscoe, by William Kennedy, conveys a comfortable familiarilty with the role of the back room party boss. One of the last bastions of the democratic Machine made famous by Tammany Hall, Albany recently sported a Major (Erastus Corning II) who served for forty-two years. Republicans eventually gave up and moved to the suburbs rather than try to fight Albany's City Hall. Politicians play rough in Albany--they know how to hit you where you live. Americans are for the most part idealists when it comes to politics and are shocked and disillussioned by even the whiff of political impropriety or vested interests. Roscoe portrays an old world approach to political power, where able politicians never leave anything to chance (or to the electorate). Kennedy places you on the inside of the machine, and conjures up the complex and dreamy psyche of an aging fixer, a lawyer whose connections, and ability to dig up the dirt on anyone, allows him always to pronounce the last word. The political power and corruption are the backdrop to a more human drama, however--the emergence of a romance whose roots can be traced well back in the old calculus of gaining city hall, a romance that presents Roscoe the opportunity to love after a lifetime of patience and unconscious longing. Kennedy's great achievement lies in this ability to discover the heart of a man we'd all fear, envy, and loathe--a man whose tired and elegaic musings demand no sympathy, ask no indulgence, and offer no apologies--and to lead us to the point where this unlikely hero exposes that heart to an equally world-weary woman, the love of his youth. Political aspirants should read this book to discover if they have a soul like Roscoe's, one that can live in the muck and simultaneuosly still come up smelling roses.
on January 13, 2004
The story of one man's immersion in a world of political and personal corruption, this novel follows the efforts of political operative Roscoe Conway to break free from the milieu in which he's spent his adult life: Albany politics. Mixing political shenanigans with Depression-era bootlegging and gangsterism, the story opens shortly after the end of World War II with our eponymous hero seeking a way out. But his buddies, Patsy McCall (the town's Democratic Party boss) and Elisha Fitzgibbon, a local blueblood and businessman, who, together with the shrewd Roscoe, make up the Democratic Party triumvirate that wields power in Albany, demand his continued attention. Patsy asks Roscoe to hang around a while longer and then Elisha goes and dies under suspect circumstances, sucking Roscoe back into the vortex of political maneuvering and personal feuds that define his world. As the Republican governor tries to get the goods on the Democratic party leaders and young Alex Fitzgibbon, son of Elisha, returns from the war (he'd volunteered to serve as a private in the infantry) to resume his old seat as Albany's mayor, things really heat up. State troopers are snooping around and trying to bust the brothels and gambling establishments secretly operated by the Democratic chieftains even as Roscoe must try to avoid the whiff of scandal occasioned by Elisha's untimely demise. For Roscoe this is doubly hard since Elisha's widow is also Roscoe's first and, apparently, only true love. So while trying to figure out the secret behind Elisha's abrupt "departure" from the world of Albany's living, Roscoe initiates a tentative courtship of the beautiful Veronica, Alex's mother, at the same time. Meanwhile Patsy and his brother Bindy have a falling out over some chickens (they are competitive devotees of cock fighting), which threatens to blow the Albany machine's operations wide open, leaving them prey to the holier-than-thou Republican governor (not mentioned by name but clearly Thomas E. Dewey).
We follow Roscoe as he moves about the town meeting various players, trying to tamp down the problems that keep cropping up and to figure an angle that will enable the Democrats to hold onto power in the upcoming election, no matter what. For Roscoe voting fraud, public bluster and misrepresentation are all tools of the trade. And yet Roscoe is an endearing sort, somewhat overweight and clearly overly romantic, he pines for Veronica while he struggles to hold the rapidly unravelling strands of their lives together, even when Roscoe's former wife, Veronica's sister Pamela, returns to try to extort money from her lovely sibling. Could she be the reason Elisha, Veronica's husband and Roscoe's boyhood friend, took the final powder?
The novel shows us these events through the somewhat hazy, and possibly less than completely reliable, eyes of the clever but world weary Roscoe as he seeks to retrieve his life in one final chance to do more with it than scheme and manipulate votes in the backrooms of Albany. Enjoyable and sharply written, this book faltered about halfway through but picked up again and carried me through to the end. I was, however, a little disappointed by the denouement but the book, on balance, was plainly worth the read.
on January 25, 2003
Kennedy, in his NY Times article on "writers on writing," says that to write a novel about Albany politics he had to understand the movers and shakers, and not focus journalistically on their corruption. He has shown in a sense the self-defeating aspects of power, but Roscoe and possibly his colleagues seem irrepressible. Maybe it shouldn't but this galls me. Why doesn't Kennedy show the consequences of this predatory machine. They have insured continuing poverty and stunted lives among the poor; money meant for public projects goes to the politicans' pockets or party funds; the Machine louts bathe themselves and their constituents in shallow cliches just as their counterparts, state and federal, do today; they use police brutality and regressive taxes to destroy enemies and keep citizens from health care, education and recreational facilities.
Are the political scoundrels and their shallow, spoiled wives, mistresses and children Kennedy writes about given too much respect? Where are the social pathologies and injustices that result from Roscoe's cleverness? Compare Kennedy's to political novels of Robert Penn Warren, Raymond Chandler, James Ellroy, Chester Himes, Ralph Ellison, Nelson Algren. I sense in Roscoe, despite its verve, historical acuteness, and rounded characters, an apology for--or at least an unpleasant amusement regarding, repressive, predatory authority.
on April 10, 2002
Of all the reviews I've ever written for amazon, this has to be one of the most difficult. I completed the latest novel in William Kennedy's Albany cycle two weeks ago and I'm still not quite sure what I think of it. This is hardly meant as a negative comment. Most books I read rarely linger in the memory past one or two days after I turn the final page. However, Roscoe is a book that has haunted my mind. If, while reading the book, I was occasionally frustrated by the feeling that -- as skillfull a writer as the author obviously is -- Kennedy had just missed the chance to create something great, I must also say that many of the darkly humorous, somewhat disturbing images that Kennedy paints have continued to haunt my mind. I have always felt that the sign of a true work of art isn't how much it might entertain while you're experiencing it but how it affects the way you see your own reality once the initial experience is complete. A great work of art for me is one that literally infects the world around you. Roscoe is that type of art. I'm not giving this book four stars because I feel its flawless but because its mysteries have stayed with me even after I expected them to be forgotten.
Impishly mixing fact and fantasy, Roscoe tells the story of the infamous Albany political machine of the early 20th century. It was a machine that produced some great men while building its foundations on the actions of some very bad men and it is this juxtaposition that Kennedy gleefully juggles over the course of his narrative. The fictional Roscoe Conway is a Falstaffian-figure that would -- at most -- probably be only a minor comedic henchman in most political novels, a man who has spent his life as something of an errand boy (albiet a very powerful errand boy) for the true leaders of the Albany political machine. He's a drinker, a womanizer, and, if a lifetime of aiding political corruption and general graft has left him with the beginnings of a tortured soul, he manages to handle the pain with an admirable good humor. The book opens with the end of World War II and as the nation celebrates, Roscoe's best friend mysteriously commits suicide. Roscoe's attempts to understand his friend's death leads him on the expected soul-searching journey. What's unexpected are the surreal detours that journey takes. With poetic, freeform prose, Kennedy mixes accounts of Roscoe's rougish past with a present day storyline (involving his dead friend's widow's -- the woman Roscoe loves -- attempts to not lose custody of her adopted son) that at times seems to deliberately read like a parody of a Douglas Sirk film. Throughout it all, Kennedy presents us with dream-like images that include Roscoe's dead friend coming to life just to immediately die once more, a nonsensical conversation with the Pope, and a brief aside that details Roscoe's late father's head blowing up like a balloon and bursting once it floats up to the ceiling. What these images are meant to represent are left up to the reader, an admirable choice on Kennedy's part that will, nonetheless, leave many readers frustrated. Is Roscoe truly remorseful over the sins of the past, does the widow truly deserve his or anyone's love, and is Albany's idealistic and youthful Mayor a brave hero or a self-righteous fool? These are just a few of the questions that Kennedy forces his readers to ponder. The book, to its own brave credit, declines to directly answer but instead leaves it up to the reader to sort through all the images and figure out what adds up to what.
But before I make Roscoe sound overly pretentious, it should be understood that this is a wonderfully entertaining book and the rapidly paced, cheerfully over-the-top storyline will hold the interest of most readers rather their searching for deeper literary meaning or just a good and enjoyable read. If Kennedy leaves the reader with many mysteries, he also provides an all--too believable revisionist history of both New York and our country that manages to include acidic portraits of everyone from Franklin Roosevelt to Thomas Dewey (never named but obviously meant to be the gnomish Republican governor who causes the Albany machine such trouble) to gangster Legs Diamond. Kennedy populates his political world with a lively and truly memorable gallery of humorous grotesques. Every character -- from the lead character to the town's leading hooker to the definitely psychotic but still rather likeable police detective -- comes vividly to life in Kennedy's masterful prose. Kennedy crafts his characters so that they possess enough quirks to keep the reader on his toes, yet he never commits the all-too common sin of mistaking quirkiness for motivation. And, of course, Kennedy's Albany comes to brilliant life so that by the end of the novel even a dyed-in-the-wool Texan like myself can't help but love the city. No, Roscoe is not a perfect novel but it is definitely one that should be read and cherished for both what it is and what the reader makes of it.
on April 2, 2002
Yes, Roscoe Conway is a classic William Kennedy character, right up there with Legs Diamond and Francis Phelan. But unfortunately 'Roscoe' is not a great book - a good book, yes, probably Kennedy's best since 'Ironweed,' but like 'Quinn's Book' and all of the others written since the masterpiece 'Ironweed,' it lacks cohesion and focus.
The details on how the Democratic Machine was run in Albany are quite interesting. And Kennedy is certainly a wonderful and entertaining prose stylist. I just wish he would spend more time constructing a compelling narrative, something to draw the reader into the story in such a way that you care more about the characters.
Unfortunately for Kennedy, everything he writes will be judged in relation to Ironweed, Legs and Billy Phelan's Greatest Game, his origninal Albany cycle. Roscoe is good, but it doesn't exactly stand up to Kennedy's best. On the other hand, Roscoe Conway as a character is a wonderful creation, and I have a suspicion that William Kennedy is not done with him yet.
on March 6, 2002
Roscoe's a man without a life of his own. He's the well educated prominent son of a three time Albany mayor but always in the background, second fiddle to Patsy and Elisha but their go-to guy when things need doing and a secondary interest in the life of each major female character.
At first I loved the story. Three boyhood friends from the turn of the century are Albany's local power brokers at the end of WWII. Patsy McCall who came up the hard way and Elisha Fitzgibbon, Yale grad and grandson of a wealthy industrialist, use their control of just about everything corrupt to support the Democratic machine. On VJ Day Roscoe Conway tells them he wants to retire. Then Elisha kills himself, and there's no way out for Roscoe.
Kennedy takes the reader back and forth through their lifetimes together. Roscoe's brother O.B. now police chief, O.B.'s partner Mac, lobbyist Cutie LaRue and Joe the WWI hero now State Senator provide fuel and maintenance for Patsy's machine. The women are as complex as the men. Elisha's wife Veronica, her sister Pamela who was married to Roscoe for a week, Mac's girls Gladys and Pina, Hattie the landlord and Mame the madam fit nicely into Kennedy's mosaic. And speaking of complex, wait 'til you get into the relationship between Patsy and his brother Bindy or O.B. and his partner Mac.
The story goes off tempo along the way when Kennedy creates scenes that are too outrageous to keep his characters real. In a chapter entitled "Negotiable Love" Patsy wants to raid a brothel to put Bindy in jail as payback for a scam he pulled. It's a chapter of depravity, deceit and corruption, which in the end is all twisted by Roscoe to political gain. Was it supposed to be shocking, funny or what? It definitely wasn't real.
That weakness aside, I couldn't wait to get back to the story to find out where it would take me, often surprised and uncomfortable but not disappointed. If there's a message here I suppose it's that the sins of Roscoe and his pals place them beyond redemption, Roscoe will be damned to live alone with them forever and his penance will be to allow Elisha and Veronica's son Alex to become a politician of a new generation.
on February 25, 2002
I absolutely loved Kennedy's original Albany trilogy (though, "Ironweed" is head and shoulders above the others). That, and being a New York native and upstate denizen for many years, I have remained committed to reading Kennedy's subsequent works. My impression remains that, following "Ironweed", in his subsequent novels Kennedy has tried too hard to sustain the image of being a profound writer (though "Ironweed", albeit unconsciously, is a profound work). His history "O Albany", however, was quite good. After the press hype for "Roscoe" I had my hopes up, yet after finishing it was underwhelmed.
"Roscoe" is an interesting, and primarily a quite plausible description of the political machinations of power brokers in a lesser burg. Like Kennedy's other works, he tends to focus on describing the gritty lives of bottomfeeders; his descriptions of the local political leaders, however, quickly become caricatures.
Evidence of Kennedy trying too hard are his efforts at surrealism punctuating the book; they would be interesting and worth pondering if they substantively enhanced the plot; I don't think they do. Additionally, for anyone at all familiar with the rigid caste system of upstate New York, the likelihood that the WASP upper crust would allow their holi poli Irish Catholic minions out of the shadows, much less risk their reputations in anyway socializing with them is totally implausible. Kennedy goes even further and suggests an intimacy which is hard to comprehend (recreational flings, perhaps; substantive relations, hardly). The author suggests intermarriage between Jews and Catholics and then WASPs in post WW I era when such taboos didn't ease up until the '60's. His story is further diminished by an unsavory element of incest that, while it makes the plot somewhat more complex, makes the reader feel weak and want to take a shower.
If you are originally from upstate New York, or very familiar with New York State politics, you might find this interesting. I had hoped for something broader, more revealing, and with more bite. While I can appreciate that Kennedy's vigorous efforts at metaphors probably reveal considerably more, I couldn't sustain the interest to reflect on them after putting the book down.
on February 14, 2002
Roscoe Conway, a fixture of the Albany political machine for 26 years, from post-World War I through the Depression and Prohibition and World War II, wants out. As the country celebrates V-J Day and the end of the war, Roscoe finds himself weary of wheeling and dealing. Unmarried and still pining after his first love, who married his best friend, Elisha Fitzgibbon, Roscoe questions the meaning of it all.
"I have to change my life, do something that engages my soul before I die," Roscoe tells Elisha, who observes that Roscoe has kept his discontent hidden. Roscoe explains, "I have no choice. I have no choice in most things. All the repetitions, the goddamn investigations that never end, another election coming and now Patsy wants a third candidate to dilute the Republican vote. We'll humiliate the Governor. On top of that, Cutie LaRue told me this afternoon George Scully has increased his surveillance on me. They're probably doubling their watch on you, too. You'd make a handsome trophy."
This statement establishes William Kennedy's mid-century Albany in the seventh book of his Albany cycle - a city run by a small, closed circle whose primary function is to maintain power, constantly besieged by similar cabals whose goal is to grab that power for themselves. The weapon of choice is the scandal, of which there are plenty to go around, real or manufactured. And the best defense is a ferocious boomerang of a spin, at which Roscoe excels. The reasons he wants to retire are the same reasons why he can't. Roscoe's life is inextricably entwined with the Democratic Albany machine and both Roscoe and his city are ailing.
Albany is run by a triumvirate of boyhood friends - Roscoe, Elisha Fitzgibbon and Patsy McCall, none of whom hold office. Hours after Roscoe announces his intent to retire, his friend Elisha commits suicide. Puzzled and shocked, Roscoe's political antenna tells him Elisha had a good reason, probably to do with protecting his family. He postpones his retirement to help Veronica stave off a nasty family scandal, his youthful hopes of romance rekindled.
As the Republicans position themselves for attack, and Roscoe plies his skills, Kennedy splices the teeming past into the melodramatic events of the present, history repeating itself with infinite variation. Roscoe's World War I experiences (and his first foray into "spin"), the numerous internecine battles among New York state's and Albany's democrats, the roles of big politicians like Al Smith and FDR and the big criminals like Legs Diamond, the opportunities of Prohibition and the ever-present dangers from muckrakers and power grabbers from outside the machine and feuds and jealousies within among the cops, judges, civil servants and vice purveyors who keep things volatile, all of it feeds the machine. The cast of characters is big and the novel's scope is vast but Kennedy engages the reader with his own fascination for history and ambitious, unscrupulous men.
Kennedy, an Albany native and winner of the Pulitzer for "Ironweed," gives us a portrait of a man and a city, mirror images, both full of heart and wit and delight in clever scheming. Roscoe is Albany, his fate rooted deeply in the city's. His father before him was a cog in the machine and Roscoe's first steps were orchestrated by (and a tribute to) his father's ambitions. When Roscoe says he never had a choice, it's the truth. He can no more escape the clutches and drive of Albany than Albany can shed the machine that makes it run. As the reader recognizes this, Roscoe is driven to greater feats of political brilliance and sleight-of-hand. But no man can control the passions of others or the quirks of fate.
Kennedy's prose is as big and ebullient as his sprawling story. In Kennedy's hands Albany history has a legendary, mythic feel. Though the cast of characters and dizzying panorama of events sometimes taxes concentration, Kennedy's black humor, sharp irony and the perverse likability of rascally Roscoe continually enthralls, right up to the final irony of the perfect ending.
on January 9, 2002
Roscoe is the seventh novel in Kennedy's "Albany" cycle, the most notable other book of which is the excellent Ironweed, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize. It's the only other book by Kennedy I've read, but I liked it well enough to want to pick up the new one, and for the most part am glad I did.
Ironweed is one of those rare novels that translated well to the Big Screen--I thought the adaptation, with Jack Nicholson, Meryl Streep and Tom Waits was terrific. Much of the reason why is perhaps that Kennedy is among the most "cinematic" of "literary" novelists, a quality in evidence with the present book, too--in a way that somehow reminds me of D.H. Lawrence, Kennedy is capable of vivid lyrical flights which never detract from an otherwise conventional narrative, and which evoke an overtly visual panoramic landscape. As in Ironweed, Kennedy weaves the surreal in with the realism of the prose, creating a convincing and often brilliant effect where the reader is able to step into the actual conciousness of a character--"hearing" dead people "speak", for example--without missing a beat of the forward motion of the plot.
But that is where the novel becomes a little weighty. Much of the motion of the book is slow and cumbersome, and at times a bit predictable, as we enter the lives of a post-WW II Albany small-time polititian and his world of other politicians, complete with the lack of character one might expect from such characters.
Not that we're supposed to especially like Roscoe, the man, but one never really gets a very clear sense of him or of any of the many other characters in this novel. It's easy to say that this is because Kennedy is suggesting that there's not much to them, but I don't buy the imitative fallacy. We're introduced, mid-stream, to such a plethora of people and their lineages in a mere 291 pages that all the characters, even the principals, are drawn far too thinly to sustain a narrative about events that are less disagreeable than rather tedious and boring. Perhaps I'm missing something because I haven't read all seven books of the cycle, but a novel should stand on its own.
Vivid, lyrical writers like Kennedy, and at times Lawrence, seem to often fall into this predicament. Kennedy is at times wryly funny in a way Lawrence never was, but he seems to want to create a microcosm of America a bit...obviously, a bit too much.
But the actual writing, save for some episodes of forgettable dialogue, soars. At his best, Kennedy is spectacular, a surreal prose-poem stylist who's worth reading simply for the tightness of the imagery and the energy that bursts out of his sentences like atoms splitting in the middle of a consonant. There is no American fiction writer alive who can come close to William Kennedy in this aspect of his prose.
Which is why Roscoe is finally a success. The prose itself creates a narrative of its own, and makes me wonder if conventional standards of character and narrative should even be held to apply to such a vigorous, fresh way of telling a story.
on September 30, 2002
Having read the original "Albany Trilogy," I knew what to expect from William Kennedy. "Ironweed" was by far the best. Roscoe is number seven in what has moved from a trilogy to a "series." For me the series has gotten old. More of the same characters, strange relationships, and unique writing. If you like Kennedy's writing style and other books, there is no reason you would not like this one. I, however, found this one to be a tired retread of the same formulae Kennedy used in his earlier works.
In Roscoe, the main character is another Albany pol who skirts the line between illegality and legality while fostering the political machine's criminal element. The character is not very believable and certainly not sympathetic. His relationships are even less believable.
I should have stopped with Ironweed. I will not go back to numbers four through six of the series.