ROSCOE, by William Kennedy. Viking Penguin. 291 pp. $24.95.
Roscoe Owen Conway is the most accessible rascal to emerge from the Albany of William Kennedy’s imagination.
This is not to say that Roscoe, the title character in Kennedy’s latest novel, is any less complicated than his predecessors like the Phelans (Billy and Francis) or Daniel Quinn or even Edward Dougherty. Roscoe has plenty of intricacies; he is a gifted lawyer who rarely enters a courtroom, a decorated war hero with a confidence crisis, an aging ladies’ man who remains enslaved to his first love.
Perhaps what makes him more accessible is that Roscoe is not created from great tragedy like many of the great Irish characters of the early 20th Century. Instead, he is cast from the more familiar later generation Irish born and raised to a certain middle-class comfort, enjoying the material pleasures of the waning days of World War II America. While there are plenty of wretched Irish in this book to serve as reminders of centuries of deprivation, those folks make up the cursed chorus rather than center stage sufferers who can blame their misfortunes on generations of prejudice, torture and bad luck.
Roscoe isn’t shaped by hunger, infant mortality, alcoholism and the other familiar challenges of the Irish immigrants and their children, but rather by the struggles of second, third and succeeding generations of career, love and middle age. (No doubt armchair psychologists could trace Roscoe’s excesses at the bar and dining table to the enduring legacy of famine, but such connection would be a secondary creation of the reader rather than something explicitly enumerated by the author.)
Roscoe is a hero we can cheer for: we want him to win the election, to be victorious in court, to get the girl. He isn’t like Francis Phelan, who was overcome by a single event that made us want to just shake him and tell him to get over it, put down the bottle and move on.
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When Kennedy read from Roscoe (for the first time) at the 92nd Street Y not so long ago, I was seated directly in front of a dozen high school students who clearly viewed their attendance as some form of punishment. They were disrespectful and loud, Kennedy read from an early section of the book titled “Felix Declares His Principles to Roscoe,” laying out the formula for the ongoing success of the Albany County Democratic machine. One especially loud young boy got quiet as Kennedy explained that this section of the book featured Felix Conway, who had come back from the dead to tutor Roscoe on the finer points of running the political machine:
“How do you get the money boy? If you run ’em for office and they win, you charge ’em a year’s wages. Keep taxes low, but if you have to raise ’em call it something else. The city can’t do without vice, so pinch the pimps and milk the madams. Anybody that sells the flesh, tax ’em. If anybody wants city business, thirty percent back to us. Maintain the streets and sewers but don’t over do it . . . ”
Some of the students continued chattering, but the loud boy was enthralled and shushed them.
As monologue goes on, providing a detailed road map on trafficking with clergy, lawyers, district attorneys, the poor, the rich, the young and old and, most cunningly, how to coexist with but maintain control of that most troublesome tribe, the Republicans, the students become riveted.
At the end, the loud student announced, “Them boys know their stuff (or a similar word). Rudy Giuliani could be learning lessons from them boys.”
The book opens in the fall of 1945. Roscoe Conway is a second-generation political leader who runs Albany County with his childhood friends Patsy McCall, the son of a legendary saloonkeeper named “Black Jack,” and Elisha Fitzgibbon, the patrician. The unlikely trio plots an election, parries a Grand Jury investigation of obvious political corruption and slaloms through a lively world of fancy restaurants, upscale hotels, flaunting brothels and cutthroat gambling halls.
Roscoe pines for the girl of his dreams, who unfortunately married Elisha.
Roscoe’s marriage to the girl’s sister proves disastrous and his succor comes from the most notorious madam in all of upstate New York. A sudden death leads Roscoe to question the relative value and pain of his successes and failures. All of this is done with Kennedy’s trademark wizardry of words.
This is a compelling book, a tale that deals with life’s major questions. But it is a book that has a laugh a page, deftly inserted between tragedy and solemnity. Roscoe may be a rascal, but he’s a rascal you’ve got to love.
— James E. Mulvaney