William Kennedy's Greatest Game

Roscoe has a lyricism and a gusto rarely achieved in serious American novels about politics
  • Roscoe

    By William Kennedy
    Viking, 291 pages, $24.95

One can only imagine what secret pleasure Michael Dukakis took from the defeat of Mark Green in New York's recent mayoral race. Another overage whiz kid who gives brains a bad name, Green ran a campaign of such spectacular, extended ineptitude that he has made Dukakis seem, in memory, a kind of FDR. Even with his five-to-one Democratic advantage in voter registration, the unlamented Green—labeled "obnoxious" by that gold standard of abrasion, Ed Koch—couldn't make it in the absence of the old Democratic machine. There is now only a "coalition," and even that, politically, is hardly the "gorgeous mosaic" once invoked by Mayor David Dinkins. It's an ethnic-racial quilt that gets unraveled or repaired largely at the whim of Al Sharpton, an ever more respectable fraud who equals Green in brains and murders him when it comes to charm.

It is tempting to believe that Green was beaten by a different sort of machine, a new and soulless one—namely, the glowing computer terminal that made the business fortune of his info-baron opponent, Michael Bloomberg. But this would ignore the campaign's essential moment, which was not just human but positively tactile. It's now generally agreed that the new mayor was elected about ten days before voters went to the polls, when Rudolph Giuliani draped his arm over Bloomberg's billionaire shoulders.

This human factor has made for a huge, no doubt temporary, resurgence in city politics. Giuliani stands triumphant atop the rubble for having discovered and conveyed to the suffering citizenry some unexpected and deeply personal part of himself. The legendary New York mayors—Jimmy Walker, Fiorello LaGuardia, Koch—had always swaggered into that category with blarney and shtick; for nearly eight years before September 11 Rudy himself had vied for a place with them by sternly playing bad cop-bad cop with the electorate. Then all of that fell away from him—along with, one would almost swear, the bad hair and the lisp—to be replaced by something not just cool-headed and hands-on but also very quiet. The transformation came when Giuliani told New Yorkers, in the first days after the attack, that they should go up to people on the street who appeared to be frightened and offer them encouraging words. It was hauntingly simple, an almost mystical sort of constituent service, and it came from the heart. By Friday of that week everyone wanted Rudolph W. Giuliani to be mayor forever—and at certain unfortunate moments the old untranscendent Rudy couldn't help hinting he wanted that too.

What a mega-mayoral moment for William Kennedy to come along with Roscoe, the best novel of city-hall politics to appear in ages, even though it is set decades ago, before Kennedy's Irish brethren left the committee rooms to coach their sons' suburban Little League teams. (In New York, at last year's Al Smith dinner, one could hardly find a boyo among the elected officials on the dais.) This new book has a lyricism and a gusto rarely achieved in serious American novels about politics, which are rare to begin with, and any consideration of Roscoe must eventually include a re-reading of Edwin O'Connor's The Last Hurrah (1956), the touchstone of American municipal fiction.

Roscoe's underpinnings can be found in the author's 1983 nonfiction history of New York State's capital, O Albany! Kennedy devoted a chapter of that book to Dan O'Connell, the longtime boss of the Albany Democratic Party—or the "Democracy," as the party liked to think of itself, with a certain willed confusion of the part and the whole. Mario Cuomo once told "the story of Dan's being marooned on an island with another man, with only one coconut between them," according to Kennedy. "They decided to take a vote on who should eat it, and when the vote was counted, Dan had won, 110 to 1." O'Connell, as devoted to cockfighting as to politics, more or less controlled the city from 1921 to 1977. His machine generally "suggested you register Democratic," Kennedy says. "And if you didn't, the tax assessment on your house might suddenly double."

In Roscoe, Dan O'Connell becomes Patsy McCall, "the man who forked the lightning" and took Albany back from the Republicans in 1921. He rules with the aid of Elisha Fitzgibbon, a steel magnate who lives on his grandfather's estate outside the city. (Elisha's flesh-and-blood basis is Edwin Corning, once a major holder in the Ludlum Steel Company.) The last, and apparently fictional, member of the city's governing threesome is the eponymous Roscoe Owen Conway, a poetic lawyer and fixer whose father, Felix, once the city's mayor, tutored the triumvirate in the art of politics.

The novel opens in August of 1945, just before Elisha's son, Alex, Albany's new "soldier-boy Mayor," returns from Europe. What might have been an hour of transgenerational triumph for the machine turns out, however, to be one of grave danger. A new wave of "the Morality Plague," resurgent "every seven or so years" by Roscoe's reckoning, is infecting the body politic. This time its principal agent is the "mustachioed little gnome" in the governor's mansion, Thomas E. Dewey, who is closing in on the Democracy's whorehouses and gambling operation. Near the opening of the novel Elisha commits suicide, an event that produces, thanks to the machine's prerogatives, "two autopsies, one real, one fake," along with a wake featuring "all three rings and sideshow of the Democratic circus: pomaded ward leaders, aldermen and committeemen, underpaid undersheriffs, jailers, lawyers and clerks, bloated contractors, philanthropic slumlords, nervous bookmakers unaccustomed to sunlight."

Suddenly, at fifty-five, Roscoe, overweight and troubled with an ulcer, is up to his straw hat in troubles. But even before Elisha's death he tells Patsy that he wants out: "I'm sick of carrying time around on my back like a bundle of rocks." Patsy doesn't believe that Roscoe would really forsake the machine, but the triumph of the novel is that Kennedy makes us believe it. Roscoe may live politics, but he doesn't breathe them. He's a turbulent romantic, churning with repressed feeling. He's had a twenty-five-year affair with Hattie Wilson, landlady to the party's brothels, but all that time he's been enamored, like a courtly lover, of Veronica, Elisha's wife. Now that she's Elisha's widow, everything is different.

Veronica let Roscoe put his arms around her while she wept—spasmic, throaty crying. Roscoe held grief in his arms and knew he could die of happiness, a traitor, embracing his best friend's wife. Yes, it's true, Elisha, old pal. You're dead and we're not.

The novel's blood and plot lines are supremely baroque: Roscoe was once married to Veronica's sister, Pamela, whose son, Gilby, supposedly fathered by a Russian exile before being adopted by Elisha and Veronica, may be Elisha's biological son after all. Pamela's reappearance for a gaudy custody battle dominates a fair stretch of the book's action—all of it as absorbing as it may be preposterous. Kennedy also gives us a sudden feud between Patsy and his brother Bindy. (The volatile McCalls will be remembered by readers of Kennedy's 1978 novel, Billy Phelan's Greatest Game.) Moreover, but not finally, there is an exploding rivalry between Roscoe's policeman brother, O.B., and his colleague Mac McEvoy over credit for the long-ago killing of Legs Diamond—the subject of another Kennedy novel, in which the killing was subject to a substantially different interpretation.

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Thomas Mallon’s books include the novels Two Moons and Aurora 7, as well as Rockets and Rodeos, a collection of essays.

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