- The Washington Times - Friday, April 6, 2007

ALBANY, N.Y. — Back rooms and saloons where William Kennedy’s characters prowled are stops on a trolley tour. The local orchestra is tuning up for a concerto based on his latest work, and residents around this city so intimately tied to the Pulitzer Prize winner’s imagination are being asked to read “Legs,” “Ironweed” or “Roscoe.”

The string of events through early May were planned, in part, to bring attention to the Albany Symphony Orchestra’s newly commissioned concerto based on “Roscoe,” but the feelings behind them are real. The two-month Kennedy-palooza is a sort of homage to a loyal son who has spun Albany’s roguish past into novels that have put this little city on the literary map.

“He’s an important figure in literature, but also he’s so much about Albany,” says David Alan Miller, music director for the Albany orchestra. “His subject matter has virtually always been about this sense of the grandeur and the poetry of old Albany — particularly the sort of gritty grandeur of the Democratic machine.”

Mr. Kennedy’s “Albany Cycle” of novels focuses on strivers, street-corner philosophers, bums, gangsters and political fixers for the city’s once-mighty Democratic political power brokers. It’s a richly imagined version of the modest Hudson River city in which the author grew up as the son and nephew of “small cogs” in the machine.

Mr. Kennedy left Albany as a young man but returned from Puerto Rico when his father took ill. Serendipity took over from there. He decided to stay. Then a newspaper assignment to write about Albany’s neighborhoods gave the young novelist loads of raw information for what became a loosely connected series of books in which the city, with its back streets, bars and swanky hangouts, became a character in itself.

“I just felt that I needed the grounding of information to seriously create the atmosphere of the novels,” Mr. Kennedy says, “the sense of place that grew out of whatever my imagination had become.”

Sitting in a soft leather chair in his home near Albany, Mr. Kennedy casually weaves in bits of city history during an hourlong interview. He talks about where the Irish lived, where the lumber mills operated and where the big old hotels were. It’s in his head and in his heart. Speaking about long-ago cattle operations in Albany and a railroad competition with neighboring Troy, he stops himself to say: “There’s a novel in there somewhere.”

The affection is reciprocal. The city put a plaque on the front of his childhood home. A librarian looking up one of his books calls him “our William Kennedy.” When Mayor Gerry Jennings recently gave him a key to the city, it was Mr. Kennedy’s second.

Mr. Jennings wants locals to read “Legs,” “Ironweed” or “Roscoe” in the coming weeks, a version of the popular programs in which communities are asked to read the same book at the same time. In a complementary program, organizers at nearby Hudson Valley Community College are encouraging people to read “Ironweed.”

Mr. Kennedy is performing public readings for the programs, including a discussion of “Legs” at a museum a couple of blocks from where the title character, gangster Jack Diamond, was gunned down.

Trolley tours — rubber-wheeled ones; the tracks were paved over ages ago — will feature the actual places where Mr. Kennedy’s fictional characters operated, such as the now-gone bowling alley where Billy Phelan tried for a perfect game. The tour also will stop at 620 North Pearl St., Mr. Kennedy’s childhood home.

The Capital Repertory Theater’s staging of Kennedy’s play “Grand View” will cap events on May 7.

“People will get sick of me by the end of April,” Mr. Kennedy says. “No one will want to hear my name.”

The catalyst for the whole celebration is a violin concerto based on “Roscoe.”

Turning a novel into music can be daunting, but composer Kevin Beavers already had written a tone poem based on “Legs,” complete with ratchets to evoke the sound of Tommy guns. Mr. Beavers says he spent time in smoke-filled rooms as a child in West Virginia, so he feels he can translate selected vignettes from the tale of Roscoe Conway, the wily but troubled political operative.

“I think you’ll definitely hear the quality of the book,” Mr. Beavers says.

Mr. Kennedy seems genuinely excited about the honor. He says he likes classical music, though he comes off more like a Bing Crosby-Frank Sinatra kind of guy. A poster of Sinatra, a youthful mug shot, hangs near the bar and the pool table in his big rec room. This is the rural house he bought before he was famous and where he and his wife raised a family.

Straight-backed and shuffle-free at 79, Mr. Kennedy gets to Albany a couple of times a week. He has been known to show up for events at the New York State Writers Institute, which he founded. He also keeps an office in the Albany brownstone where Diamond was slain.

“People knock on the door and want to see the room where Legs was shot,” he says.

He has no thoughts of leaving the area — “Why would I?” he asks — as he works on his next novel. The book will be set during the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Part of it will take place in Cuba, part of it in more familiar Kennedy territory.

“It will be an Albany book,” Mr. Kennedy says. “Much of it will take place in Albany.”

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