No Substitute for Experience
“Are you a politician, Roscoe?”
“I refuse to answer on grounds that it might degrade or incriminate me.”
~ From Roscoe, by William Kennedy
In Roscoe, William Kennedy continues working the vein prospected by two minor classics, William Riordan’s Plunkett of Tammany Hall and Edwin O’Brien’s The Last Hurrah. The seventh Kennedy novel set in the author’s hometown of Albany, New York, is elegantly crafted, often uproariously funny, and betrays both a profound understanding of human frailty born of original sin and the sure knowledge that man born of woman is doomed to sorrow.
His characters, of course, enjoy themselves as best they can, usually at each other’s expense. Thus, one of Roscoe‘s numerous memorable minor characters, Mac, one of the cops who assassinated Legs Diamond when the racketeer failed to understand that the Albany County Democratic organization was far more powerful than the mob, reflects on the stabbing murder of an informer: “Robbed and stabbed, and he dies naked, broke, full of holes, and covered with blood. I like it.” Later, just before a fixed cockfight between birds owned by two brothers and party bosses, Patsy and Bindy McCall, Bindy introduces Roscoe to his cock.
“This is the Swiggler,” says Bindy. “You ever been swiggled?”
“Not by a chicken,” answers Roscoe.
“Blame Roscoe,” the novel’s closing sentence, is not an evasion of responsibility but an admission of artistry. Kennedy closes the book with his author’s note, expressing his gratitude to numerous persons, living and dead, whose stories and knowledge helped him to form his work. 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 one-time 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 ten miles of the city of Albany, I know that 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. 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 over half a century. He had a certain knack for massaging election results. A story Mario Cuomo once told had Dan 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 the rest of us 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 five 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.
Roscoe 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 2d (he preferred the Arabic to the Roman numeral) was elected mayor of Albany eleven times before his death in May 1983. No American mayor has served longer. As Kennedy notes in his offbeat history of the city, O Albany!, Corning held power “longer than Trujillo, Franco, Peron, Batista, Somoza, Napoleon, Hitler, Mao, Catherine the Great, Peter the Great, Henry VIII, Ferdinand and Isabella, Ethelred II, and…Augustus Caesar.” Even at sixteen, 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.
Corning’s unusual first name (after forty 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 twenty-six, State Senator at twenty-seven, Mayor at thirty-two), and hardworking (he routinely worked a sixty-hour week). He inherited wealth and made more through his political connections (his insurance agency, Albany Associates, wrote ninety 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. 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, apparently. The story goes that some forty 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 he 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 with 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 it.
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.”
“Give your friends jobs, but at a price and make new friends every day.”
“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.”
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.