There is a long and distinguished tradition of evoking a sense of place and its attendant culture in American literature. It is known as regionalism. For William Faulkner, the most significant body of his work was a series of novels set in fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi; for William Kennedy, it is a small city in upstate New York called Albany. Having employed this state capital as the backdrop for six prior novels, Kennedy uses his seventh book-length work of fiction about his hometown as a means of exploring one of the most infamous elements in its history: the Albany Democratic Party and its political machine in the first half of the twentieth century. On the surface, this may strike one as a curious choice of material, for the intrigue of party politics in an aging Rust Belt city would seem to hold little interest for the contemporary reader, but Kennedy once again proves the old truism that art can justify any subject matter.
Anyone intent upon crafting historical fiction in that particular place will, inevitably, have to come to terms with the political organization that dominated the city for much of the twentieth century. Again, while the Albany political machine pales in comparison to the likes of Mayor Richard J. Daley’s Chicago, it is a little-known entity full of characters worthy of a fine novelist. Interestingly, Kennedy takes pains in his “Author’s Note” to declare that Roscoe is a work of fiction and that the reader should not associate its characters with actual people. One wonders if this was said tongue in cheek. For anyone even remotely familiar with politics in upstate New York, some prominent characters in the novel hew so closely to their real life counterparts that the resemblance is as obvious as it is undeniable. Indeed, one of the many joys of reading Roscoe is connecting the bland public personas of the Albany machine with Kennedy’s fictional vision of how they achieved positions of power. For those readers who are new to the world of Albany city politics, Alex Fitzgibbon, the boy mayor who goes off to war and returns to run for reelection, is remarkably similar to Mayor Erastus Corning II (1909-1983); Patsy McCall, who heads the Albany Democratic Party, is the fictional counterpart of Dan O’Connell (1885-1977).
Appropriately, the novel focuses upon the trials or, perhaps more accurately, the adventures of its eponymous hero, Roscoe Owen Conway, as he tries to survive in the grimy world of Albany city politics. There are several different approaches that Kennedy might have taken with his material. He might well have been condemnatory in tone, as many were of Albany politics, and simply used the novel as a vehicle against what many considered an immoral institution. As the novel reveals, the Albany Democratic Party, like many political machines of its day, not only condoned criminal behavior but actively supported it as a means of self-preservation. Cockfighting and prostitution were just as vital in funding the political organization as the ballot-box stuffing that kept it in power. On the other hand, Kennedy could have accepted dirty politics as a fact of life and simply employed it as an interesting background for an examination of his central character. Kennedy could even have attacked the machine through mordant social satire, much as Jonathan Swift did in his famous essay A Modest Proposal (1729). A viciously corrupt political machine is the antithesis of democracy, since by its very nature it only rewards those who are willing to support it: It is intolerant of dissent. Roscoe has been described as a comic novel—which is true—but it is one that asks some serious questions: How does one live a lie? How does Roscoe Conway function within an organization that is dedicated to perpetuating a lie?
Rather than simply condemn the indefensible, Kennedy opts instead to recognize the paradoxical nature of his material, something that is reflected in the very structure of the novel. Roscoe consists of eight chapters, each with a title that is descriptive of its contents. This is the novel proper, the story of Roscoe and his battles on behalf of the machine. However, every chapter is preceded by its own single-page story that clearly ventures into the realm of fantasy. Thus, while the second chapter—“Love, Scandal, and Horses”—precisely characterizes what follows, “Roscoe and the Flying Heads”—a nightmarish sequence featuring heads shifting to different torsos in a danse macabre—comes just before it. All of these mini-chapters, for want of...
(The entire section is 1868 words.)