- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 10, 2002

By William Kennedy
Viking, $24.95, 291 pages

If you have ever been a reporter who covered city hall or city politics or have hung around the bars and clubs where the pols and grifters and hangers-on hang out I urge you to read William Kennedy's newest novel, "Roscoe." You are going to love it. You know the people who populate it.
If you've ever been a politician in a city the size, say, of Albany, N.Y., or Burbank, Calif., you are going to love it even more because you may well recognize yourself and your cronies and your girlfriends among the people Mr. Kennedy brings to life. This is particularly true if your career dates back to the decades before and immediately after World War II before politics and local governments all across the country were radically changed by a heavy influx of that special breed of political activists known as goo goos. (Goo goo is short for good government, and is a term for people who believe government can be and must be uncorrupted by partisan politics and partisan political machines.)
I have not read any of Mr. Kennedy's six other books that center on New York's capital city of Albany, so I have nothing by which to judge his seventh book except the amount of enjoyment it gave me. And that is fine by me, because "Roscoe" can stand by itself as a wonderful tale of a city political machine and the men who manipulate and corrupt the city's politics and government and do so almost without an awareness that what they are doing not only is wrong but also borders on being evil.
If Mr. Kennedy's earlier Pulitizer prize-winning novel, "Ironweed," is anywhere nearly as good it deserved the honor.
"Roscoe" is filled with I hesitate to use the word "delightful" because most of Mr. Kennedy's characters are crooks or whores or their consorts, and some are worse delightful characters, chief among whom is Roscoe Conway who is at once, if this is possible, corrupt but honorable, tough and ruthless but gentle and caring, casually immoral but highly moral in his own way.
While the book is about Roscoe and his political cronies and his enemies and Veronica, the love of his life he has loved her all of his life it is almost as if Mr. Kennedy uses people primarily as a gimmick to give the reader a lesson in real politics at the municipal level, which isn't much different from and no more or less dishonorable than politics at the state and national levels.
The late F. Clifton White, a New York pol who graduated to national politics, before he died wrote a book called "Politics as a Noble Calling." Clearly White, who was that rare combination, a good politician and an idealist, and Mr. Kennedy have seen politics from far different vantage points or perhaps White never paid much attention to city politics in Albany while he was there working in Gov. Thomas E. Dewey's state administration.
For sure, Mr. Kennedy's view of politics as we see it in "Roscoe," makes for better reading than would any novel based on White's.
Mr. Kennedy declares himself to be a writer, not a politician, but his knowledge of the inside workings of a political machine is vast and accurate.His characters may be fictional and the incidents in the book may be fictional, but the reader can accept them as real, because they could be. Mr. Kennedy, quoting Roscoe, puts it well in his Author's Notes: "Truth is in the details even if you invent the details."
Roscoe Conway is a born and bred Albany politician, following in the footsteps of his father who taught him most of what he knows, including how to raise money, how to win elections, how to control a city. He is a Democrat, maybe because most great city political machines have been Democratic the Daley machine in Chicago, Pendergast who ran Kansas City and was Harry Truman's mentor, Boss Hague in Jersey City, and perhaps the greatest of all political machines, Tammany Hall in New York City.
Albany is small potatoes compared to these, (it's population today is barely 100,000) but it's politics in Roscoe's time is every bit as rough and tumble and crooked and corrupt.
In fact, as Mr. Kennedy writes it, the Albany political machine is politics at its worst, maybe because also at its most efficient. Elections are stolen, whorehouses are kept open for a price, illegal cock fighting is carried on openly, murders go unpunished, gambling is winked at and in Albany, like in most cities during prohibition, bootlegging is a way of life.
And involved in all of this, or certainly most of it or at the very least, accepting of it, is Roscoe Conway, who with his political buddies and personal friends Patsy McCall and Elisha Fitzgibbon, run the party machinery and through it the city. Patsy is the main man, Roscoe is number two and runs the day-to-day operation where most of the action is. Elisha owns the steel factory and is the money man.
Because this is a close-knit operation Patsy's brother, Bindy, controls the whorehouses, Roscoe's brother, O.B., is the chief of police and Elisha's boy, Alex, is the mayor, newly returned from the war in Europe. Of these Roscoe is the most introspective, knowing who he is and what is is more than do the others. "As I am incapable of truth so am I incapable of lying," Roscoe says to no one in particular, adding "which is, as all know, the secret of the truly successful politician."
Other truisms pop up from time to time. Elisha "It's a short walk from politics to hell." Roscoe's father "Never let an enemy go unpunished." Roscoe "Honesty is no substitute for experience." Roscoe "A lie, after all, is only another way of affirming the desirable." And Roscoe once again "It's true only if you can't fix it."
Everybody in the cemetery is true." The cameo appearances of old New York pols such as Al Smith, Jimmy Walker, Herbert Lehmann and Franklin D. Roosevelt add to the authenticity of the political ambiance and stench of corruption that are always present. So, too, does the murder of the old New York gangster Jack "Legs" Diamond.
Roscoe is fat, 50-ish, a veteran of World War I who fraudulently awarded himself a Distinguished Service Cross, a romantic in the truest and broadest sense, a non-practicing lawyer and a master at the art of politics. He also has a bad heart. This is the story of his last months as a political power, burnished with flashbacks not only into his personal life but also into the politics of Albany and New York State between the end of World War I and the period immediately after World War II.
For 26 years Roscoe and his friends, Patsy and Elisha, have controlled the Albany Democratic organization and now Roscoe, who has run the day-to-day operation all that time, has had enough. He is tired of it all. He wants out.
But what you want and what you get often are two different things. No sooner does Roscoe voice his desire to Patsy and Elisha than things begin really to go to hell and while he wins some battles along the way in the end he loses the one thing he really wants.
Roscoe is a man of many facets. He is endlessly patient, he is fatalistic, he knows how to roll with the punches and not only is he smart but also he is possessed of real political smarts, a rare quality even among politicians. So, because he is all of these things, who knows what lies in store for him in Mr. Kennedy's ongoing and still unfinished (one can hope) saga of the cesspool that is Albany politics?
Somehow, at the end of the book, as Roscoe drifts down the Hudson River aboard a night boat to New York City, you sense you have not seen the last of Roscoe, the man. And that is as it should be, because characters like Roscoe don't often come along, either in fact or in fiction and it would be a shame to lose him with so much of his story still untold.
It's been five years since Mr. Kennedy's last novel. Let us hope that it will not be that long before his next one and that he will not bury Roscoe in Albany's fictional graveyard.

Lyn Nofziger, a Washington writer, was a political advisor to President Ronald Reagan.

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