by William Kennedy
You can't fight city hall
A review by Ron Charles
Can Albany's political machine run without its star mechanic?
William Kennedy's latest novel about Albany takes us back to the good old days when political corruption was fun. After a year without the Clintons in the White House, Roscoe is a bittersweet reminder of the comedy we've been missing in this new age of squeaky-clean earnestness.
The seventh of Kennedy's novels about the capitol of New York opens as World War II closes. Albany's dashing young mayor is returning from battle, a decorated soldier ready to defend his city. With the Nazis vanquished, the new enemy is a Republican governor determined to clear out the city's network of political cronies, gangsters, prostitutes, and bookies a direct attack on the Democratic Party.
At the controls of that machine are three crafty crooks who've been friends since "their shared boyhood on the city streets they have come to own": Patsy McCall, the party's leader; Elisha Fitzgibbon, the party's moneyman and the mayor's dad; and finally Roscoe, the party's brains, a man who understands that real power is exercised by men who can't be seen.
Lately, though, even that shadowy role seems burdensome to Roscoe. "I'm 55 years old," he notes, "and going no place." With another world war won, it's a new age that calls for new corruption.
After decades of workaday graft, the thought of gearing up for another contest sounds exhausting. Besides, rumors on the street say the Feds are moving in on him. He's not really worried, but he's literally and figuratively heartsick, still aching from a bullet lodged in his chest since World War I and still pining for Elisha's voluptuous wife.
But no sooner does he reveal his plans to retire than Elisha beats him to the punch by committing suicide. Apparently, the heat was getting to him, too, though he leaves only the thinnest evidence to help Roscoe discover their enemy. The chief of police, who is conveniently Roscoe's brother, can cover up embarrassing details, but the party machinery throws a rod, and Roscoe is the only qualified mechanic on hand to fix Albany's splendid City Hall.
At the same time, Elisha's widow calls on him to defend her against a paternity suit brought by her licentious sister. The scandals surrounding Elisha's death and now his 12-year-old son conflate to produce a perfect storm, more than enough to blow away the mayor's reelection and 25 years of patriotic crime.
It's a crisis that appeals to Roscoe's "rage for duty" and his chivalric fantasy: a chance to clear his dead friend's name, embrace his now-available widow, and defend the party of good working men and women against the forces of cold-hearted Republicanism.
His greatest challenges, though, are internal. The heartache he's been feeling manifests itself in a life-threatening ailment. What's worse, strife within the gang threatens to dismantle the party. When Roscoe should be shuffling off to a quiet retirement graciously funded by years of protection money, he finds himself instead investigating a murder, sleuthing through Elisha's whorehouses, and trying to settle a blood feud between big-time cockfighters a sport that's probably never been described in such plucky detail.
Roscoe carries out these duties with a maestro's finesse. In one of his best moments, he punches out a critical journalist, sets his own bail, pays it with city funds, and then schedules his own arraignment. Democracy in action.
Fans still reeling from the emotional assault of Kennedy's Pulitzer Prize-winning Ironweed (1984) will find this new novel a different, but no less brilliant book. Roscoe barrels along with the wild vitality America hasn't seen since E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime. It's a winking, confident novel, full of snappy irony but capable of dropping into dark horror or sweet sympathy.
Kennedy has perfected a hybrid voice that's as likely to mock these gangsters as celebrate them. As Roscoe's emergency repairs move forward, the story dips back into the party's history, adding so many characters to this outrageous collection that you'll want to maintain a genealogy on the back cover to keep everybody straight.
Clearly, they've won the author over, as they do us. He can't help but address them directly, slapping their shoulders and laughing at their exploits. How gleefully they condemn their enemies' buildings, fine them out of business, harass them into submission, all the while looking out for the little guy. At times, Kennedy's delight with their hubris overwhelms him, and the narrative rises into fits of surrealism that are pure delight.
Roscoe "tries to succeed by making it a practice to be honest whenever it seems feasible." His heart is not well, but it's good, and through these tall tales he emerges as a man of both principle and principal, dedicated to a system of corruption in defense of the weak and his own pocket. When asked by a judge, "How do you plead?" he responds: "Less guilty than yourself, with all due respect, Your Honor." It's an artistic triumph and a moral scandal that Kennedy can make us root for this shameless hustler.
Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor
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