Magazine article The American Prospect

Kennedy's Quidditas: Roscoe's Place in the Albany Cycle. (the Critics Literature)

Magazine article The American Prospect

Kennedy's Quidditas: Roscoe's Place in the Albany Cycle. (the Critics Literature)

Article excerpt

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. …

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