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The Atlantic Monthly | February 2002
Books & Critics
William Kennedy's Greatest Game
Roscoe has a lyricism and a gusto rarely achieved in serious American novels about politics
by Thomas Mallon
by William Kennedy
Viking, 291 pages, $24.95
ne 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.
hat 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.
The interested reader may or may not be inclined to separate all the truth and fiction—to find out, for example, from O Albany! that Elisha's real-life counterpart died during an operation, not from "a huge dose of chloral hydrate." Kennedy's Author's Note, concerning his method for giving art to actuality, is worthy of grand-jury testimony by the nimblest pol.
There was a political machine in Albany comparable to the one in this book, and some of the events here correspond to historical reality, and some characters here may seem to be real people. But I don't do that sort of thing. These are all invented characters, even Al Smith and Jack Diamond. They might be better than their prototypes (if they have any), they might be worse; but I hope they and their book are true. As Roscoe points out, truth is in the details, even if you invent the details.
Which is to say, the historical novelist gets to order up two autopsies.
Kennedy somehow manages to keep this book under control, though he's up against his own tendency toward phantasmagoria. The dead are always terribly available to him. One remembers Francis Phelan, Billy's father, gabbing with them in the graveyard in Ironweed (1983). This time Roscoe, as if he were Yeats, sets out brandy snifters for them. A quarter century after his death Felix Conway can still appear to his son in a hotel lobby, for spectral reinforcement of the advice he used to give in the manner of Tammany's George Washington Plunkitt: "Give your friends jobs, but at a price, and make new friends every day." There's no reason for Felix to stop giving advice just because he's no longer alive. "People say voting the dead is immoral," he once explained to Roscoe, "but what the hell, if they were alive they'd all be Democrats. Just because they're dead don't mean they're Republicans." In fact, in big American cities the cemetery has always been a one-party town.
Kennedy had an early, not quite healthy, taste for the orgiastic high jinks of J. P. Donleavy; that sort of stuff is very visible in his 1969 novel, The Ink Truck. Here, even though Roscoe does talk to a billy goat for a few paragraphs, fantasy has been pretty well disciplined. The author's Joycean lilts and diction ("modality") see only fine, occasional service in conjoining the precinct with the cosmos: "Watch the city opening its doors: jewelers, cafeteria workers, newsboys, cigar dealers lowering awnings, sweeping sidewalks, washing windows, stacking papers, all dressing their corner of the universe for another day of significant puttering." Memory breaks the narrative moment more often, perhaps, than it should, and Roscoe himself can sometimes be a bit too sententiously Delphic, but Kennedy has all the chief instruments of novel writing, including dialogue, terrifically in tune.
"All you have to do is sell Patsy your soul."
Above all, it is Roscoe who makes things work. We know just why he wants out ("An entire society structured on extortion and subordination: what a way to live") and just why he's stayed in ("Manic life, the gamble, game chickens, high action, the campaign, that's the stuff"). Veronica sees in her indefatigable liege "a man of immense spirit, a man for loss"—a taste for which is perhaps more requisite for bigness than a taste for winning. What makes Roscoe splendid is his incompleteness; the lesser creatures around him are, he understands, "final versions of themselves"—a definition of flat characters more brilliant than the one offered long ago by E. M. Forster.
"Didn't I do that a long time ago?"
"A soul as big as yours, you get to sell it more than once."
If I detect a false note in the protagonist, it's his name. I can't buy the idea that Felix Conway would name a boy Roscoe only a few years after Roscoe Conkling, the titan of New York's Republican Stalwarts, had passed from the scene. So loathed was Conkling by the other party that in 1887, way out in Kansas, one rabidly Democratic citizen, suspecting his wife of adultery and doubting his paternity of the son she had just delivered, cursed the plump new boy, a future star of silent film, with the name Roscoe Conkling Arbuckle.
n O Albany!, Kennedy requires several paragraphs to list all the ties his family and neighbors had to the Democracy's machine. Most important, his father, who "became a deputy sheriff of Albany County in the late years of his life and always worked the polls on Election Day ... was a fanatical loyalist to Dan [O'Connell] and all he stood for." The ubiquity of these nepotic connections made the future novelist understand how, for the Irish, politics "was justice itself, and sufficient unto itself." Kennedy's expression of this idea echoes some remarks by Mayor Frank Skeffington, in The Last Hurrah, about how politics gave the Irish constituency "everything they have ... it was only when we gained a measure of political control that our people were able to come up for a little fresh air."
Edwin O'Connor's book won this magazine's fiction prize for its embodiment, in Skeffington, of James Michael Curley, who presided over Boston—the novel's unnamed and unmistakable locale—for several terms between 1914 and 1950. Unlike Kennedy's Roscoe, O'Connor's Skeffington is never behind the scenes but always out in front. If Roscoe wants out of politics, Skeffington wants in forever. But the same tectonic force is moving the ground beneath each man's feet and bringing his world to a conclusion. That force is Washington, D.C. These pols of urban democracy were, in their way, more opposed to big government than Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater. The machine might seem omnipotent, but it was little government, local and personal. The New Deal "destroyed the old-time boss," Jack Mangan says in The Last Hurrah. "What Roosevelt did was to take the handouts out of the local hands. A few little things like Social Security, Unemployment Insurance, and the like." The "little tin box" had been replaced by the U.S. Treasury. O Albany! follows the trend into the 1960s. New York's capital, Kennedy says, was "the last large city in the country to have an antipoverty program," because Dan O'Connell wanted his voters grateful to city hall, not to some new HUD office with a drop ceiling and clerks who could pass a civil-service exam.
The Last Hurrah's overarching melancholy derives from the inexorable replacement of the bumptious by the bland. Skeffington's final opponent, a smiling cipher named Kevin McCluskey, is no progressive visionary. He's the candidate of convenience not only for some good-government types but also for Skeffington's sclerotic Brahmin enemies, including Amos Force, the newspaper publisher for whose family the mayor's mother once worked as a housemaid. The challenger's defining moment as a candidate is a nauseating series of TV programs called "At Home With Kevin McCluskey," during which McCluskey appears with a rented dog, a picture of the Pope, and four of his children. (Students of Massachusetts political history will remember "At Home With the Kennedys.") A reader who endures the broadcast ends up yearning to return to the company of the incumbent mayor's Celtic hangers-on, such as "Ditto" Boland and Cuke Gillen, "an ex-vaudevillian who served Skeffington officially as the City Greeter."
O'Connor's novel acknowledges its tilt toward a sentimental view of Skeffington. The book manages to point out that "he was not a guiltless man," and gives obligatory notice of "buildings erected and roads constructed unnecessarily and at three times their normal cost ... the gerrymandering, the featherbedding ... the whole, incredible, ridiculous, wasteful tangle," but it devotes far more pages and emotional attention to the way its colorful old lion will, say, prevent an undertaker from gouging a poor widow. It's no wonder the real-life Curley—as Jack Beatty shows in his biography, The Rascal King (1992)—was delighted with O'Connor's fictional reconstruction.
At one point in Roscoe, Kennedy tells us that Patsy McCall's "house smelled like Sunday." O'Connor's whole book feels like Grandmother's dining room on that day of the week, the aroma of the roast traveling toward the lace curtains and the closed windows. Archaic moments abound: just after diagnosing Skeffington's coronary, the doctor, without authorial irony, lights a cigarette. The book's chief antique pleasure lies in its speeches. The mayor's language is as florid and fringed as Roscoe's. He speaks it in the last historical moment when voters flocked to oratory instead of fleeing it: "Just between ourselves, I continually wonder at my own effrontery in opposing this young man who's going to do so much for us all."
If The Last Hurrah is never tin-eared, it walks all too often on flat feet. Skeffington's world is displayed for us through his earnest nephew, Adam, whom the mayor encourages to accompany him on his last campaign. Adam constantly underlines his status as a literary device ("I hadn't realized that all this was a part of your job"), and one can no more believe Skeffington's desire for his company than one can imagine Groucho Marx wanting to pal around with George Fenneman after the show. Even the novel's great set piece—a fifty-page wake that the mayor turns into a campaign stop—is hobbled by the nephew's stiff, functional presence. In form, Roscoe is something like The Last Hurrah's opposite; Kennedy keeps everything swirling and stylized. You sometimes want his book to comb its hair as much as you'd like to muss up The Last Hurrah's.
Edwin O'Connor died in 1968, just before turning fifty. William Kennedy is now seventy-four, and has had aging on his mind for at least a dozen years. In 1989 he told an interviewer, "I don't think there's any rule that you can't supersede your own early work ... I am fond of insisting that I'm not in decline, that the next book is going to be better than the last. It may or may not be, but I have no doubt I know more about how to write a novel, more about what it means to be alive, than I ever have." Roscoe can be seen as the fulfillment of this promise by the author to his constituency. It may, in fact, be William Kennedy's greatest game.
But this new novel should be only a penultimate hurrah. Its sequel is readily apparent as it closes. At the end of Roscoe, Elisha Fitzgibbon's son, Alex, is still at the beginning of his reign over Albany: "a rich man's son with a common man's heart," Roscoe thinks. "Goddamn it, Alex, that is an unbeatable combination. You can be Mayor forever." And he very nearly was. Alex's real-life basis, the Curley to his Skeffington, was Erastus Corning, whose incumbency stretched from 1942 to 1983, earning him a mention in Ripley's Believe It or Not! Corning would not be wholly his own man until well into the 1970s, when Dan O'Connell, responsible for the sixty-eight janitors employed at city hall, finally left the building. But Corning and Kennedy are a natural fit, each having been smart enough to seize just the right amount of turf, political or literary. Like the novelist, Corning had an innate sense of scale. As Kennedy wrote in O Albany!, "Erastus's ready answer was that he never wanted higher office, that he liked Albany, liked its manageable size, could get to know almost everybody." No one gets to be mayor for life—not even Erastus, let alone Rudy. But literature outlasts politics, and by reaching deep instead of wide, William Kennedy has made himself the man who will govern Albany for all time.
Copyright © 2002 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; February 2002; William Kennedy's Greatest Game; Volume 289, No. 2; 93-97.