Spectacular mayhem

How do you get the money to run a political party?

It seems like a legitimate question to the young political reformer who’s come to the lobby of the Ten Eyck Hotel in 1917 to pose it to Felix Conway, the three-time mayor of Albany, New York. But the innocent query sends Conway into paroxysms of laughter, in the opening pages of William Kennedy’s Roscoe, so that “he floats up from his chair … rises like a hot air balloon, caroming off the balustrade of the Tennessee marble stairway, and keeps rising on up to collide with the lobby’s French chandelier, where he explodes in a final thunderclap of a laugh.”

The ex-mayor then gives an answer that his son, Roscoe, would remember three decades later: “How do you get the money, boy? If you run ’em for office and they win, you charge ’em a year’s wages. … 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.” Finally, old Felix comes to the all-important matter of getting elected, a project that he concedes involves recruiting voters both living and dead: “What the hell,” the old pol rages, “if they were alive they’d all be Democrats.”

Such is Roscoe Conway’s introduction to the world of politics, and this is the scene he finds himself contemplating in 1945, as he leads a Democratic Party under siege. The Republicans in the governor’s mansion are intent on smashing the Albany machine, and Roscoe’s grateful to have former mayor Alex Fitzgibbon back from war and ready to run for his former office. Alex is the son of steel magnate Elisha Fitzgibbon, Roscoe’s crony, and things seem ready to fall into place until Elisha suddenly commits suicide after mysteriously destroying piles of secret documents and leaving these last words with his secretary: “Roscoe will figure it out.”

Such a thing would, of course, count against the Democrats in the election, so the true nature of Elisha’s death is quickly hushed up via Roscoe’s connections at the police department and the local papers. Still, Roscoe must know why Elisha killed himself, and soon realizes he’s the only person in the world in a position to find out.

What follows is part mystery novel, part American history, part poetry and pure William Kennedy. In perhaps his best novel since the Pulitzer Prize-winning Ironweed, Kennedy once again conjures a pre-war Albany that is every bit as real as Saul Bellow’s Chicago or William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, and more exciting than either.

Kennedy’s prose sings with humor, poetry and a unique Irish-American glory, so that even a relatively simple anecdote such as a bird accidentally flying into a tavern becomes a lyrical tour de force. Yet unlike many contemporary writers of “serious” fiction, Kennedy isn’t so fascinated by the sound of his own sentences that he forgets the value of a rip-roaring plot. Even aside from Roscoe’s pursuit of the central mystery, Kennedy’s novel is a whirlwind of activity: Among other things, our hero visits a cockfight, gets caught up in a Republican-sponsored raid of a brothel, punches out a disloyal newspaperman, witnesses the murder of a police captain by his best friend and lieutenant, woos the newly widowed secret love of his life and generally commits the sort of lies and mayhem necessary to keep the Albany machine running.

It all adds up to a fabulous novel, one that is as dense in richly imagined events as it is in magnificently achieved prose. Roscoe is one of the finest achievements of one of the great novelists of our time, and is highly recommended both to fans of Kennedy’s Albany novels and as an introduction to his work.