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Roscoe Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

William Kennedy’s seventh novel of the Albany cycle, Roscoe is the story of Roscoe Conway, the boisterous, engaging, and rogue politician who has made the Democratic Party what it is in 1930’s and 1940’s Albany. The book begins in 1945, as Roscoe has decided, finally, to retire from politics. A series of barriers, however, stand in the way, and the retirement has to be delayed.

Things fall apart when Roscoe’s best friend, steel magnate Elisha Fitzgibbon, commits suicide, and his former wife, the sister of Elisha’s widow, returns to add mayhem to an already volatile situation. Meanwhile, Roscoe is working to get Alex Fitzgibbon, Elisha’s son, back into the office of mayor. He is also attempting to patch up a feud between Democratic leader Patsy McCall and his brothers, characters who previously appeared in Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game. On top of this, Roscoe is also trying to heal the divide between McCall stooge Mac McEvoy and Roscoe’s brother O.B., Albany’s chief of police, over credit for the killing of Jack “Legs” Diamond.

Another element that adds confusion and chaos to Roscoe’s life is his longtime love for Elisha’s widow, Veronica. Now that Elisha is dead, Roscoe finally works up the courage to make a move on Veronica, and he is very close to winning her heart. As if that were not enough, Roscoe also receives visitations from his dead father, Felix, and the reader is reminded how commonplace it is for the living to communicate with the dead in Kennedy’s Albany.

In some ways, Roscoe is the book that Kennedy has always needed and wanted to write. It is an investigation into the nature of a certain kind of politician, the kind that seemingly no longer exists. Hot-blooded Roscoe bears much in common with legendary politicians of old such as Jimmy Walker and Fiorello La Guardia, and he injects vibrancy and comic energy into Kennedy’s otherwise dark vision of the post-World War II Albany political machine. More than that, though, the novel is about Roscoe’s Irishness and about the archetypal Irish American Democrat of the first half of the twentieth century. Whether one reads Roscoe as historical fiction, as a tale about power in the vein of William Shakespeare’s Henry IV (c. 1597-1598), or as a simple legal thriller, Roscoe is a successful contribution to the Albany cycle, one that cements Kennedy’s place among America’s greatest literary regionalists and also helps shed light on a time when politicians were as flawed and crooked as ever, yet full of a vivacity and originality that has all but disappeared from the American political landscape.

In interviews, Kennedy has stressed the importance to him of writing about past events instead of current events in the interest of avoiding the trap of writing mere journalism. With Roscoe, the reader sees why this formula works for Kennedy. He allows himself enough distance, enough freedom, to mold and shape these characters into unique and spirited creations. An exposé on a recent or current political figure would surely backfire for precisely all the reasons that Roscoe works so well.

Sources for Further Study

America 186 (April 22, 2002): 26.

The Atlantic Monthly 289 (February, 2002): 93.

The Economist 362 (March 2, 2002): 104.

Entertainment Weekly, February 15, 2002, p. 62.

Library Journal 126 (November 1, 2001): 132.

New Criterion 20 (May, 2002): 66.

The New York Review of Books 49 (April 25, 2002): 6.

The New York Times Book Review 107 (January 13, 2002): 8.

The New Yorker 77 (January 21, 2002): 83.

Publishers Weekly 248 (November 19, 2001): 47.

The Washington Post Book World, January 27, 2002, p. 7.