"Roscoe" by William Kennedy

The author of "Ironweed" returns with the grandly entertaining tale of a Falstaffian political boss amid the crooks and strivers and demented rich of Albany.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published January 24, 2002 10:15PM (EST)

Roscoe Conway is a political machine boss of the old school, an apostle of corruption who believes that "fraudulence is the necessary modality for human existence." As Roscoe's legendary father, Felix, whose mantle he inherited, once told him in the lobby of the Ten Eyck Hotel in downtown Albany, N.Y., where Felix held court daily, some people claim it is immoral for dead people to vote. Those people are missing the point: "Just because they're dead don't mean they're Republicans."

Like any hero of a William Kennedy novel, Roscoe is surrounded by the dead and is in some sense in communion with them. He is most certainly a practical man of his time (which stretches from the 1920s to the '40s), a problem-solver, even a man of venal tastes and appetites whose friends justifiably compare him to Sir John Falstaff. Yet at the same time he is a man entangled in the romantic webs of the past, a man drawn like an upstate Orpheus into the underworld of ghosts and saints and philosophy. During the course of "Roscoe," Kennedy's grand new entertainment, the title character rigs elections and hands out innumerable bribes, covers up a suicide, whitewashes a murder and double-crosses a blackmailer. He also uncovers a terrible secret and tells it to no one, and then sacrifices himself for love.

Unlike many critics, I rather liked "The Flaming Corsage," the previous entry in Kennedy's cycle of novels about the Irish-Americans of Albany, but it was admittedly a book for his adherents, perhaps too dependent on its connection to other points in the Kennedy universe. "Roscoe," on the other hand, is the author's most dramatic and accessible novel since the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Ironweed" nearly two decades ago, and newcomers will find it just as rewarding as longtime fans will. It's a capacious yet compact work about love and death and politics and, as Roscoe tries to explain to the ghost of Jack (Legs) Diamond, the harmonious music of the spheres.

There are special treats for Kennedy's core audience, of course: Attorney Marcus Gorman, the principal narrator of "Legs," plays a key role here, and Diamond, his long-dead employer, makes a few ectoplasmic appearances. Readers of "Billy Phelan's Greatest Game" will recognize Roscoe's boss, the phlegmatic Albany power broker Patsy McCall, along with his gangster brother, Bindy, who makes Roscoe look slender. But the tense and tender melodrama at the heart of "Roscoe" is all new: Elisha Fitzgibbon, the Episcopalian moneybags behind the Irish Catholic McCall machine, has killed himself, leaving Roscoe without his best friend but with a deepening mystery on his hands, along with Elisha's widow, Veronica, who happens to be the love of Roscoe's life.

There's more, of course, as Kennedy skips back and forth in time through Roscoe's life and loves, through Al Smith and FDR and Elisha's failed gubernatorial campaign of 1932. Veronica's trashy sister Pamela, whom Roscoe married after Veronica jilted him to marry Elisha, reveals herself to be the biological mother of Elisha and Veronica's adopted son. But who's the father? A police chief is shot in his office, a sadistic john is stabbed by a hooker and the McCall brothers nearly launch an intraparty civil war over a rigged cockfight. Over all the crooks and strivers and demented rich of Albany floats Roscoe, a storyteller and manipulator almost the equal of Kennedy his creator. He knows that the ghosts he sees are hallucinations, fantasies, "wishful resurrections." But as a practical man, he "allows for all realities, including those that do not exist."

Our next pick: A smart, frisky, futuristic tale about a literary detective

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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