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Cover Review

Ghosts in the Machine

ROSCOE: A Novel, By William Kennedy, Viking: 294 pp., $24.95

January 20, 2002|MICHAEL GORRA

Reading William Kennedy's darkly comic new novel, "Roscoe," makes me suspect that the entire population of Albany, N.Y., once consisted of ward heelers, prostitutes, bagmen and bent cops. It's a town where no vote goes unbought and the police run the rackets themselves; a man's town, in which women matter less than beer or horses. Yet it's also an oddly egalitarian place, where men of all classes meet as equals in the bars and back rooms, using one another's first names in recognition of their shared interest in the crooked machinery of party politics

"Roscoe" is the seventh of Kennedy's Albany novels, a cycle of interlocking narratives that trace the fortunes of New York's unlikely capital from the mid-19th century forward. The best known--and perhaps indeed the best--of those books remains the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Ironweed," with its phantasmagoric view of the city through the eyes of its drunks and derelicts, a novel whose finest scenes take place in a cemetery. Kennedy's new book, in contrast, provides a more familiar version of the city's buried history.

Roscoe Conway is part of the triumvirate in charge of the local Democrats, and hence the city itself, sharing power with the patrician Elisha Fitzgibbon and the bootlegging street boss Patsy McCall. He's a shrewd but tired fiftysomething lawyer with both literal and metaphoric heart trouble, and in August 1945, Roscoe's main job is to keep the party one step ahead of Republican state investigators.

Then, just after V-J Day, Elisha, his childhood friend, commits suicide, and Roscoe needs to find out why and to keep it all quiet. Pretty soon there's a newspaper editor to punch out, and before he knows it, Roscoe is juggling a couple of unrelated murders, eight brothels, an election, a child custody suit, a $40,000 cockfight, his not-yet consummated love for Elisha's widow, ghosts, surgery and the eating of a great many oysters.

None of which, the oysters aside, seems at all consequential. "Roscoe's" complicated plot has holes in it the size of Patsy's kegs. It's really just a peg on which to hang an atmosphere, a string of set-pieces to illuminate the shadows that both link and separate politics and crime. Take Elisha's suicide. Roscoe receives two autopsy reports, one for Elisha, "dead of coronary occlusion; and one on Abner Sprule, an alias the party used ... when it suited them. Chloral hydrate killed Sprule." And the cop in charge adds that Sprule even has a body: "We got a wino out of the river." Kennedy never does tell us exactly why Elisha killed himself, and Roscoe himself doesn't need to know to produce a convincing explanation. For the truth, as he says, "is in the details, even when you invent the details."

Roscoe is a wizard at the blarney we now call spin, and Kennedy's achievement here lies in extending that into a portrait of a society too openly corrupt to be called dishonest. He shows us how the game is fixed, whether it's autopsies or elections or cockfights: "The instant a crooked handler ... touches a chicken, he can secretly break his thigh with a thumb.... You can also train your bird to lose

I don't expect to try any of it at home, but somehow I'm glad to know this stuff, just as I am to learn that a tightwad mayor might "encourage parents to send their kids to Catholic schools; it lowers the public-school budget." "Roscoe" depends on Kennedy's knowledge of such street-smart ploys, a mastery that has less in common with writers such as Saul Bellow or William Faulkner, to whom he is frequently compared, than it does with someone like Raymond Chandler. For Kennedy and Chandler describe a society in which some crooks are honest and most respectable citizens aren't, where everybody has secrets and lives at some remove from the law, except--or especially--when they own the law.

Still, there are differences, the most important of which is that while both set their work in the '30s and '40s, Chandler was writing then too. He didn't have the freedom to describe the full range of his society's speech or sexual practices. Kennedy does, and his pages are as pungent as onion, made sharp and raw by his ability to include everything excluded by the conventions of the time at which his work is set. Even his liberal use of what most newspapers still consider an obscenity serves to remind us of the literariness of the hard-boiled world from which "Roscoe" descends, a reminder that makes Kennedy look realistic by comparison.

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