The first novel from William Kennedy in more than five years and universally acclaimed as his most powerful work since the Pulitzer Prize-winning Ironweed, Roscoe shows Kennedy at his very best. It's V-J Day, the war is over, and Roscoe Conway, after twenty-six years as the second in command of Albany's notorious political machine, decides to quit politics forever. But there's no way out, and only his Machiavellian imagination can help him cope with the erupting disasters. Every step leads back to the past-to the early loss of his true love, the takeover of city hall, the machine's fight with FDR and Al Smith to elect a governor, and the methodical assassination of gangster Jack "Legs" Diamond. "Thick with crime, passion, and backroom banter" (The New Yorker), Roscoe is an odyssey of great scope and linguistic verve, a deadly, comic masterpiece from one of America's most important writers.
About the Author
William Kennedy was born and raised in Albany, New York. He began his writing career as a journalist, and his novels have been translated into two dozen languages. His novel Ironweed won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction.
Read an Excerpt
THE SPHERES OF
WAR AND PEACE
Roscoe Owen Conway presided at Albany Democratic Party headquarters, on the eleventh floor of the State Bank building, the main stop for Democrats on the way to heaven. Headquarters occupied three large offices: one where Roscoe, secretary and second in command of the Party, received supplicants and debtors, one where Bart Merrigan and Joey Manucci controlled the flow of visitors and phone calls, and one for the safe which, when put here, was the largest in the city outside of a bank vault. Of late, no money was kept in it, only deceptive Democratic financial data to feed to the Governor's investigators, who had been swooping down on the Party's files since 1942, the year the Governor-elect vowed to destroy Albany Democrats.
Money, instead of going into the great safe, went into Roscoe's top drawer, where he would put it without counting it when a visitor such as Philly Fillipone, who sold produce to the city and county, handed him a packet of cash an inch thick, held by a rubber band.
"Maybe you better count it, make sure there's no mistake," Philly said.
Roscoe did not acknowledge that Philly had raised the possibility of shorting the Party, even by accident. He dropped the cash into the open drawer, where Philly could see a pile of twenties. Democratic business was done with twenties. Then Philly asked, "Any change in how we work this year, Roscoe?"
"No," Roscoe said, "same as usual." And Philly went away.
At his desk by the door Joey Manucci was recording, on the lined pad where he kept track of visitors in their order of arrival, the names of the men who had just walked in, Jimmy Givneyand Cutie LaRue. Joey was printing each name, for he could not write script or read it. Bart Merrigan spoke to the two arrivals. Merrigan, who had gone into the army with Roscoe and Patsy McCall in 1917, was built like a bowling pin, an ex-boxer and a man of great energy whom Roscoe trusted with his life. Merrigan leaned into Roscoe's office.
"Patsy called. He'll be in the Ten Eyck lobby in fifteen minutes. Givney from the Twelfth Ward and Cutie LaRue just came in."
"Have them come back Friday," Roscoe said. "Is the war over?"
"Not yet. Cutie says you'll want to see him."
"How does he know?"
"Cutie knows. And what Cutie don't know he'll find out."
"Send him in."
Merrigan told Jimmy Givney to come back Friday and Joey scratched a line through his name, using a ruler for neatness. Merrigan turned up the volume of the desk radio he was monitoring for news of the official Japanese surrender. A large framed photo of the new President hung on the wall behind his desk. On the wall opposite hung George Washington, FDR, who was still draped in black crepe, and Alexander Fitzgibbon, the young Mayor of Albany.
"What can I do for you, Cute?" Roscoe asked.
"Can we close the door?"
And Cutie did. Then he sat down. George (Cutie) LaRue was an aspiring lawyer who had failed the bar examination fourteen times in eight states before he passed it. He did not practice, but he knew most of the political population of Albany on a first-name basis. He functioned as a legislative lobbyist, and everybody knew him by his large, heavy-lidded, Oriental eyes, though he was French. He had a low forehead and combed his hair straight back. His tic was slicking back the hair over his right ear with the heel of his hand as he exhaled cigarette smoke from his mouth and inhaled it up his nose. Cutie knew your needs and he often lobbied for you, whether you paid him or not. If he delivered, you paid him. If he didn't deliver, he'd try again next session. He held no grudges, for he was ambitious. Cutie once overheard Patsy saying he wanted a book on Ambrose Burnside, a Union general in the Civil War, but it was out of print. Cutie learned that a copy was sitting on a shelf in the library at West Point. He drove to West Point, stole the book, and gave it to Patsy.
"You didn't hear this from me," Cutie said to Roscoe.
"I don't even know what you look like," Roscoe said.
"I heard it from Scully's office this afternoon. Straight stuff, Roscoe. I kid you not."
"Are you just talking, Cute, or are you trying to say something?"
"They want to nail you."
"This is very big news, Cute. I wish you could stay longer."
"They have stuff they can use."
"Like that missing forty thou when they subpoenaed our books? That money is not missing," Roscoe said.
"They're tapping your lines, reading your mail, watching your wild girl-friend, Trish Cooney."
"She's easy to watch. Also, she leaves the shades up."
"They know all your moves with women."
"They get paid for this?"
"You got a reputation. You know how they like scandal."
"I wish my life was that interesting. But thanks, Cute. Is that it?"
"They're on you full-time. I heard Scully himself say nailing you was as good as nailing Patsy."
"I appreciate this news."
"You know what I'm looking for, Roscoe."
"Yes, I do. A courtroom you can call home."
"It's not asking a lot. I'm not talking Supreme Court. Small Claims Court, maybe. Or Traffic Court. I'd make a hell of a judge."
Roscoe considered that: The Cute Judge. Cute the Judge. Judge Cutie. Cutie Judgie. Jurors in his court would do Cutie Duty.
"A hell of a judge," Roscoe said. "It goes without saying."*
Roscoe put on his blue seersucker suitcoat, waved farewell to the boys, took the elevator down, and went out and up State Street hill. The day was August 14, 1945. Roscoe wore a full beard, going gray, but his mustache was mostly black. Trust no man, not even your brother, if his beard is one color, his mustache another. He was fat but looked only burly, thinking about developing an ulcer but seemed fit. He was burning up but looked cool in his seersucker.
He went into the State Street entrance of the Ten Eyck and up the stairs to the lobby, which was also cool and busy with people checking in-three soldiers, two WACs, a sailor and a girl, rooms scarce tonight if the Japs surrendered. He crossed the marble floor of the lobby and sat where he always sat, precisely where Felix Conway, his father, had sat, this corner known then and now as the Conway corner. He signaled silently to Whitey the bellhop to send a waiter with a gin and quinine water, his daily ritual at this hour. He looked across the lobby, trying to see his father. I'm looking for advice, he told the old man.
Roscoe's condition had become so confounding that he had asked Patsy McCall and Elisha Fitzgibbon, his two great friends, with whom he formed the triaxial brain trust of the Albany Democratic Party, to come to the hotel and talk to him, away from all other ears. Roscoe, at this moment staring across time, finds his father sitting in this corner. It is a chilly spring afternoon in 1917, the first Great War is ongoing in Europe, and Roscoe, twenty-seven, will soon be in that war. He's clean-shaven, a lawyer whose chief client is the Fitzgibbon Steel mill, and he also has an eye on politics. Felix Conway is a man of sixty-five, with a full, gray beard down to his chest, hiding his necktie. He's wearing a waistcoat, suit coat, overcoat, and cap, but also covers himself with a blanket to fend off the deadly springtime drafts in the Ten Eyck Hotel lobby. Felix is a hotel-dweller and will remain one for the rest of his days, which are not many. He had been the thrice-elected, once-ejected Mayor of Albany, and made a sizable fortune brewing ale and lager. He was ousted from City Hall in 1893 after a lawsuit over voting fraud, but his Democrats regained City Hall in the next election and kept it for five years. In those years Felix was the Party's elder statesman, with an office next to the new Mayor, and a luncheon table at the Sadler Room in Keeler's Restaurant, where he held court for Democrats and influence salesmen of all varieties. This lush period for Felix ended in 1899.
In that year the Republicans took City Hall and also found they could afford lunch at Keeler's great restaurant. But Felix could not bear the effluvia they gave off, so he went home for lunch. It took him six months to admit he was not suited to living full-time among his wife, two sons, and three daughters. And when he did admit it, he betook himself to the brand-new Ten Eyck Hotel and told the folks, Goodbye, dear family, I'll be home Saturday afternoons and stay till Sunday tea. We'll have a fine time going to mass, eating the home-cooked meal, won't it be grand? Yes, it will, and then I'll be done with you for a week.
The Republicans of 1917 are secure in their power, and the Democrats no longer even try to win, for it is more profitable to play the loser and take Republican handouts for assuming this pose. Yet Democratic reform elements endure, and there sits Roscoe beside his father, eavesdropping as the old man holds court for a steady, life-giving flow of pols, pals, has-beens, and would-bes. Bellhops daily place "reserved" signs on the marble tea table, the Empire armchair and sofa, in the Felix Conway corner. At the moment, Felix is in his chair, giving an audience to Eddie McDermott, leader of yet another reform faction that hopes to challenge Packy McCabe's useless but invulnerable Albany Democratic Party organization in the 1917 primary.
Eddie stares into Felix's eye, revealing his plans to reform the Party if he wins the primary, and reform the city if he wins the election. He leans farther and farther forward as he speaks ever-so-softly to Felix, finally rolling off the sofa onto one knee to make his message not only sincere but genuflectional, and he whispers to the Solomon of Albany politics: "You do want the Democrats to make a comeback and take City Hall again, don't you, sir?"
"Oh, I do, I do," says Felix. And he truly does.
"I have much to learn, Mr. Conway, but there's one thing I can learn only from you, for nobody else has an answer, and I've asked them all."
"What might that be, Mr. McDermott?"
"Once we take over the Party, how do we get the money to run it?"
Felix Conway throws his arms wide, kiting his blanket toward the outer lobby, startling Roscoe. He opens both his coats, pulls off his muffler, the better to breathe, and begins to laugh.
"He wants to know how you get the money," Felix says to Roscoe, and then his laughter roars out of control, he rises from his chair, and shouts out, "How do you get the money? Oh my Jesus, how do you get the money!"
Then the laughter, paroxysmal now, seals Felix's throat and bloats him with its containment. He floats up from his chair, still with a smile as wide as his head, and he rises like a hot-air balloon, caroming off the balustrade of the Tennessee-marble stairway, and he keeps rising on up to collide with the lobby's French chandelier, where he explodes in a final thunderclap of a laugh, sending crystal shards raining down onto Eddie McDermott, the terrified reformer below.FELIX DECLARES HIS PRINCIPLES
"How do you get the money, boy? If you run 'em for office and they win, you charge 'em a year's wages. Keep taxes low, but if you have to raise 'em, call it something else. The city can't do without vice, so pinch the pimps and milk the madams. Anybody that sells the flesh, tax 'em. If anybody wants city business, thirty percent back to us. Maintain the streets and sewers, but don't overdo it. Well-lit streets discourage sin, but don't overdo it. If they play craps, poker, or blackjack, cut the game. If they play faro or roulette, cut it double. Opium is the opiate of the depraved, but if they want it, see that they get it, and tax those lowlife bastards. If they keep their dance halls open twenty-four hours, tax 'em twice. If they run a gyp joint, tax 'em triple. If they send prisoners to our jail, charge 'em rent, at hotel prices. Keep the cops happy and let 'em have a piece of the pie. A small piece. Never buy anything that you can rent forever. If you pave a street, a three-cent brick should be worth thirty cents to the city. Pave every street with a church on it. Cultivate priests and acquire the bishop. Encourage parents to send their kids to Catholic schools; it lowers the public-school budget. When in doubt, appoint another judge, and pay him enough so's he don't have to shake down the lawyers. Cultivate lawyers. They know how it is done and will do it. Control the district attorney and never let him go; for he controls the grand juries. Make friends with millionaires and give 'em what they need. Any traction company is a good traction company, and the same goes for electricity. If you build a viaduct, make the contractor your partner. Whenever you confront a monopoly, acquire it. Open an insurance company and make sure anybody doing city business buys a nice policy. If you don't know diddle about insurance, open a brewery and make 'em buy your beer. Give your friends jobs, but at a price, and make new friends every day. Let the sheriff buy anything he wants for the jail. Never stop a ward leader from stealing; it's what keeps him honest. Keep your plumbers and electricians working, and remember it takes three men to change a wire. Republicans are all right as long as they're on our payroll. A city job should raise a man's dignity but not his wages. Anybody on our payroll pays us dues, three percent of the yearly salary, which is nice. But if they're on that new civil service and won't pay and you can't fire 'em, transfer 'em to the dump. If you find people who like to vote, let 'em. Don't be afraid to spend money for votes on Election Day. It's a godsend to the poor, and good for business; but make it old bills, ones and twos, or they get suspicious. And only give 'em out in the river wards, never uptown. If an uptown voter won't register Democrat, raise his taxes. If he fights the raise, make him hire one of our lawyers to reduce it in court. Once it's lowered, raise it again next year. Knock on every door and find out if they're sick or pregnant or simpleminded, and vote 'em. If they're breathing, take 'em to the polls. If they won't go, threaten 'em. Find out who's dead and who's dying, which is as good as dead, and vote 'em. There's a hell of a lot of dead and they never complain. The opposition might cry fraud but let 'em prove it after the election. People say voting the dead is immoral, but what the hell, if they were alive they'd all be Democrats. Just because they're dead don't mean they're Republicans."
The 1945 election was twelve weeks away, the Governor's three-year-old investigation was intensifying if you believed Cutie, and who knew what they might come up with? The Republicans, because of the Governor's pressure, were running Jason (Jay) Farley for mayor, an intelligent Irish Catholic businessman who made smart speeches, their strongest candidate in years. And the absence of Alex, the city's soldier-boy Mayor, who was still somewhere in Europe, was a factor to be determined. Patsy had decided that, not only would we win this election, we would also humiliate the Governor for trying to destroy us, and his secret weapon was an old one: a third-party candidate who would dilute the Republican vote, the same ploy Felix Conway had used repeatedly in the 1880s and '90s.
Roscoe, working on his second gin and quinine, sat facing Patsy, who was having his usual: Old Overholt neat. Patsy sat here often, but he was out of place amid the gilded rococo furniture and Oriental rugs of the lobby, and looked as if he'd be more at ease at a clambake. But despite the August heat, there he was under his trademark fedora, sitting where Felix Conway had received visitors a quarter-century ago, looking not at all like a man of power, yet with far greater power than Felix could have imagined having. For Patsy now, as leader of the Albany Democratic Party for twenty-four heady years, was everybody's father, Roscoe included. Patsy, five years Roscoe's senior, was the main man, the man who forked the lightning, the boss.
"What's so urgent?" Patsy asked Roscoe.
"It's not urgent to anybody but me, but it is important. I have to retire."
Patsy screwed up his face.
"Say it again?"
"I've got to get out. Do something else. Go someplace else. I can't do this any more."
"What I do."
"You do everything."
"That's part of it."
"You gettin' bored?"
"You need money?"
"I've got more money than I can use."
"You have another bad love affair?"
"When did I ever have a good one?"
"Then what is it?"
"You know what it's like when you come to the end of something, Pat?"
"Not yet I don't."
"Of course. You'll go on forever. But it's over for me and I don't know why. It may seem sudden to you, but it's been on the way a long time. There's nothing I can do about it. It's just over."
"The organization can't get along without you. You're half of everything I do. More than half."
"Nonsense. You can get twenty guys this afternoon."
"Counting all my life," Patsy said, "I never knew three, let alone twenty, I trusted the way I trust you."
"That's why I'm giving you plenty of notice. I'll ride out the election, but then I have to quit."
"It's this goddamned investigation. Did they come up with something on you?"
"Cutie LaRue says they're hot to get me, but we all know that, and that's not it. I'm fifty-five years old and going noplace. But now I've got to go someplace. Anyplace. I need more room in my head."
"You're leaving Albany?"
"Maybe. If I can convince my head to leave town."
"You're sick from that ulcer. That's it."
"My gut hurts, but I've never felt better. Don't look for a reason. There's twenty, fifty. If I could figure it out I'd tell you."
"We gotta talk about this."
"We are talking about it."
"What about the third-party candidate? You got one?"
"I'm working on it."
"Did you tell Elisha about this plan of yours?"
"He's due here for dinner. I'll tell him then."
"This is a disaster."
"No, it isn't."
"Goddamn it, if I say it's a disaster it's a disaster. This is a goddamn disaster. What the hell's got into you?"
"Time. Time gets into everything. I'm sick of carrying time around on my back like a bundle of rocks."
"Time? What are you talking about, time? To hell with time."
"Pat, don't worry. We'll figure it out."
"Time. Jesus H. Jesus."*
The lives of Roscoe, Patsy McCall, and Elisha Fitzgibbon had been a lock from their shared boyhood on the city streets they would come to own, at the cockpits where their fathers fought chickens, and on the nine hundred acres of Tivoli, the great Fitzgibbon estate in Loudonville created by Elisha's grandfather Lyman Fitzgibbon, who in his long life made several fortunes-in railroads, land speculation, foundries, and steel manufacture. Tivoli was a paradise made for moneyed creatures and small boys. The three walked the virgin woods of oak and maple and birch and hemlock and white pine, they fished the pristine waters of Elisha's tiny Lake Tivoli until they outgrew sunfish and perch and went down to the Hudson River for blues, stripers, shad, and sturgeon. They swam in the Erie Canal and the river, hunted partridge and pheasant on the river flats, wild turkey in the Fitzgibbon woods, and deer up at Tristano, Elisha's family's sumptuous rustic camp in the Adirondacks. The boys brought their river catch and hunters' quarry to Felix Conway's table, for neither Patsy's mother nor Elisha's stepmother would give them houseroom. Roscoe organized all their excursions, fished with the eye of a pelican, and could put a bullet between a snake's fangs at sixty yards. Felix marveled at his son's talent, but it was his own doing, for he'd given Roscoe a .22 rifle as soon as the boy reached the age of good reason.
"Remember," his mother warned Roscoe at age nine, just after Felix had left her and the children to live at the Ten Eyck, "never shoot anybody with that gun unless it's a politician."
But it was the politics of Democracy that cemented the boys' friendship. Their headquarters, even before they'd begun to drink, was the North End saloon run by Patsy's father, Black Jack McCall, the Ninth Ward leader who would become sheriff. The saloon had long been closed, but Patsy reopened it every year to hear the ward leaders predict the vote they would deliver, and then give them their street money to help it happen. The trio's mentor in the liabilities of political honesty was Felix, who helped them plan Patsy's campaign for a city assessorship in 1919, the year he died. Campaign money came from Elisha, who, along with his siblings, inherited the steel fortune accumulated by his grandfather Lyman (who had helped finance Grover Cleveland's first campaign for the presidency). Elisha financed both Patsy's successful run for the assessorship in 1919, and the Democratic takeover of City Hall in the 1921 election. After that, politics was the mother lode for this trio, and money, for most of the decade, was not a problem.
Roscoe and Elisha were in the Ten Eyck dining room, finishing their second bottle of wine with a dinner of shrimp, bluefish, boiled potatoes, and fresh snowflake rolls. Elisha exuded ruddy good health, or was it the flush that comes with a summer evening? He was the picture of composure in his buttoned-down Brooks Brothers shirt, his tie tight on his collar, his double-breasted cream sport jacket impeccably tailored by Joe Amore, his steel-gray hair associated with Men of Distinction in whiskey ads. His age was visible in his receding hairline, but Red the Barber had consoled him that he would not live long enough to be bald. No one looked more stylishly rich than Elisha, the capitalist at his zenith.
The bells of St. Peter's Church began ringing up the street and Roscoe said, "So it's over."
"Sounds that way."
"Alex will be coming home."
"I hope he's not one of those postwar casualties like that German soldier in All Quiet on the Western Front. It's after the Armistice, and he raises his head up out of the trench to look at a butterfly, and a sniper who doesn't know the war is over, or maybe he does, puts one through his brain."
"Alex is too smart for that," Roscoe said. "He'll come home as fit as he went. We'll give him a parade."
"I don't think he'd march in it."
"You're probably right. He has that leveling instinct about himself."
"He'll be leveled in other ways. He won't be as rich as he used to be. None of us will."
"That's right. The government will cancel your million-dollar contracts."
"They won't need my steel for their tanks."
"You may have to make refrigerators."
"If I do that, my salesmen will have to uncover the difference between refrigerators and tanks."
"Does that make you sad?"
"It makes me poor."
"You're not poor, Elisha."
"No, I still have my shoes."
"You're a millionaire. You can't kid me."
"At times I'm a millionaire," Elisha said. "But being a millionaire opens you to criticism."
"Politics also does that."
"It's a short walk from politics to hell," Elisha said.
"Ah. It's nice to see that winning the war has lightened your mood."
"I'm tired of the scandalous liabilities of wealth."
"Which scandalous liabilities, other than the usual, might those be?"
"Nothing I want to talk about. You'll know soon enough."
"A mystery. I'll try to understand," Roscoe said. "But at no time have I ever been wealthy enough to have such worries, even though I've told people otherwise."
"I've heard you say that."
"I'm a fraud," Roscoe said. "I've always been a fraud."
"Nonsense. Nobody ever believes anything you say about yourself."
"Not even when I'm lying?"
"What if I said I was quitting the Party?"
Elisha stared at him, inspecting for fraudulence.
"Did you tell Patsy?"
"He wanted to know if I'd told you. Now it's yes on both counts."
Elisha's smile exuded knowledge of Roscoe's meaning. The man could understand what was unspoken, even unknown. Patsy understood, but could not admit it, for it ran counter to his plans and outside his control. Elisha knew Roscoe's thoughts without having to ask questions. Their friendship had gone through storms of trouble, rich men's poverty, broken love. Especially that, for Roscoe had been in love with Elisha's wife since before the two married. It didn't interfere with the friendship, for Roscoe's love for Veronica was impossible and he knew it and mostly let it alone.
"I wonder what you'll do when you quit," Elisha said. "You're not suited for a whole lot of jobs. Will you just loll around spending your money?"
"I haven't carried it that far yet. But I have to change my life, do something that engages my soul before I die."
"I'm glad to hear you still have a soul."
"It surfaces every so often," Roscoe said.
"You don't look like a man with a tortured soul. It's always a surprise how well we dissemble. You're as good as there is at that game, the way you've kept your feeling for Veronica under lock and key-it's admirable."
"I have no choice. I have no choice in most things. All the repetitions, the goddamn investigations that never end, another election coming, and now Patsy wants a third candidate to dilute the Republican vote. We'll humiliate the Governor. On top of that, Cutie LaRue told me this afternoon George Scully has increased his surveillance on me. They're probably doubling their watch on you, too. You'd make a handsome trophy."
"Wouldn't I? Do you think I should worry?"
"Are you worrying right now?"
"No. I'm listening to those bells," Elisha said. "We should avoid worrying and celebrate peace in the world. They'll call us Jap-lovers if we don't."
"I loved a Jap once," Roscoe said. "She was unusually lovely."
"I hope that wasn't during the war effort."
"Then you're safe."
"We have to battle the plague of jingoism that's about to engulf us. Some modest degree of intoxication seems the obvious strategy."
"We could drink here," Elisha said.
"Drinking in a hotel dining room at a time of jubilation," said Roscoe, "is not drinking and not serious and not jubilant. We have to mix with the hoi polloi when we drink. We have to bend with the amber waves of grain, roil our juices under spacious skies. We have to join the carnival."
"EP on the bing," Elisha said emphatically.*
They went downstairs to the Ten Eyck's bar, which was locked and dark. They walked across Chapel Street to Farnham's and found no customers, only Randall, the barman, cleaning his sink.
"We're closed," he said.
"The war's over," Randall said, taking off his apron. "Alfie says this is no time to drink. Alfie says to me, 'Close up, Randall. This is a time for prayer and patriotism.'"
"I'll remember Alfie, and I'll remember you too, Randall," Roscoe said. "Patriotism is the last refuge of saboteurs."
"Right you are, Mr. Conway. O'Connor's and Keeler's are also closed." Randall turned off the bar light. "I'll be open tomorrow after five."
On the street they heard bells gonging in several churches, trains whistling down at Union Station, the carillon clanging in the City Hall tower, the air-raid siren wailing for the last time. They saw trolleys at a standstill, traffic grid locked at State and Pearl, clots of hundreds, soon to be tens of thousands, moving into pandemonium. They walked up State and tried the bar at the DeWitt Clinton Hotel, but saboteurs had locked it.
"The Kenmore won't close," Roscoe said. "The bells of Mahoney's cash register are the opposite of patriotic."
They walked back down State Street, the majestic hill of Albany, this very old city in which they both owned uncommon stock and psychic shares. No merchant, no owner of real estate, no peddler or lawyer or bartender, no bum or pickpocket or bookie or politician in the city, not even a stranger walking the streets for the first time, was aloof from the power of these two men if they chose to exercise it; their power, of course, deriving from Patsy, the man without whom...and we all know the rest.
They walked over Lodge Street past St. Mary's Catholic Church, past the five-story Albany County Courthouse, whose ninety-seven janitors were all hired on Roscoe's okay. Cars clattered by dragging tin cans, grown men marched along pounding dishpans, and Roscoe and Elisha followed them down Columbia Street toward Pearl, where youths were throwing firecrackers at the antic crowds jamming the intersection.
They entered the side door of the Kenmore Hotel, eternal center of mirth and jazz and women and ready-to-wear myth. Roscoe regularly left his blues here, an uncounted legion of college girls left their virginity here, Bunny Berigan left his cornet here and Bob Mahoney gave it as a gift to Marcus Gorman, and Jack Diamond left the place an enduringly raffish reputation. In short, life without the Kenmore was not life; and at this moment it was noisy and overcrowded, the back bar three deep with revelers, every table full in the Rainbo Room nightclub. Roscoe and Elisha shoved their way toward The Tavern, the Kenmore's long barroom, where Bob Mahoney was pouring drink as fast as he could move. Roscoe ordered gin and also asked Mahoney to fill his pocket flask for the long night ahead.
"They been here since noontime waiting for the surrender," Mahoney said. "Another two hours like this, I'll be out of beer. I've never seen a drinking day like this ever, and I include Armistice Day, 1918."
"Nobody drank in Albany on Armistice Day," Elisha said. "I was here. We all had pork chops and went to bed."
"Weren't you in the army?" Mahoney asked.
"I was making too much money. Do you have any ale?"
"Breedy ale don't kitty or cut pips," Elisha said.
"What? What'd you say?" Mahoney asked.
"He'll have gin with an ale chaser," Roscoe said. "Did you call Stanwix about a beer delivery?"
"I called every brewery in four counties. Either they're closed or they won't handle any orders. Imagine no beer with a mob like this in the joint?"
"I'll call and get you a delivery," Roscoe said.
"You do and you drink free till Christmas."
"Mahoney, you know how to touch a man's heart."
Glenn Miller was on the jukebox-At Last, my love has come along-and two dozen soldiers and sailors at the bar were randomly kissing and fondling young and not-so-young women. Civilian males, one flashing his Ruptured Duck, the discharge button that proved he'd also served, stood by for seconds, or thirds. Roscoe recognized a petite woman who worked in his building, who always offered up a dry little smile in the elevator; and here she stood in a prolonged, sloppy kiss, her arms and a provocative stockinged leg wrapped around a sailor.
"This reminds me," Roscoe said to Elisha. "Shouldn't you call your wife?"
"Curb your salacious tongue."
"I mean no insult, old man, but we mustn't be without our women amid all this naked lust. You call Veronica, I'll call Trish, and we'll carry on elsewhere."
"No need to call Trish," Elisha said, pointing to a wooden booth by the front door where two soldiers, their caps in a puddle of beer on the table, were muzzling Trish, taking turns kissing her. As Roscoe walked toward her table he saw both soldiers' hands roaming inside her unbuttoned blouse.
"Hello, honey," Trish said, "I thought I'd find you here."
Both soldiers removed their hands from her chest and looked up at Roscoe. One soldier looked sixteen.
"I'll be right with you, Rosky," Trish said, buttoning up.
"Carry on, soldiers," Roscoe said. "They're what you were fighting for," and he went back to Elisha at the bar. "Trish is a very patriotic young woman," Elisha said.
"If sex were bazookas," Roscoe said, "she could've taken Saipan all by herself."
Roscoe saw Trish coming toward him, her walk a concerto of swivels and jiggles that entertained multitudes in the corridors of the Capitol, where she worked for the Democratic leader of the Assembly. She lived in an apartment on Dove Street, and Roscoe paid her rent. With her curly brown bangs still intact despite the muzzling, Trish explained everything to Roscoe.
"Those soldiers were in the Battle of the Bulge," she said. "Poor babies. I gave them little pecks and they got very excited. Are you angry at Trishie?"
"Trishie, Trishie, would I get angry if my rabbit carnalized another rabbit? Fornication is God's fault, not yours."
"I feel the same way," she said.
"I know you do, sweetness. Now, go be kind to those soldiers."
"You mean it?"
"Of course. They may have battle wounds."
"Where will you go?" she asked.
"Where the night wind takes me. Try not to get the clap."
"Bye, honey," she said, and kissed him on the cheek.
"Goodbye forever, little ding-ding," he said, but she didn't hear, was already on her way back to the soldiers.
"You really mean that goodbye forever?" Elisha asked.
"As my sainted father used to say, Irish girls either fuck everybody or nobody. Which category do you think suits Trish?"
Someone turned up the jukebox and a stupefyingly loud Latin tune blasted through The Tavern.
"Let this farce end," Elisha said. "The gin isn't worth it."
"I concur," Roscoe said, and they downed their drinks and moved toward the door.
"I had a thought about Cutie LaRue," Elisha said. "Why not run him as the wild-card candidate?"
"Cutie for mayor?"
"He's such a clown, and he can make a speech. He'd love the attention. People would vote for him just to say they did. And he'd get the liberals and goo-goos who hate us but can't pull that Republican lever."
"By God, Elisha, that's brilliant. Cutie, the crackpot candidate!"
"Have I helped you stop worrying?"
"No, but now I can smile while I worry."
A vandal had opened a hydrant on Pearl Street near Sheridan Avenue. A roaming vendor was hawking V-J buttons, flags had blossomed in lighted store windows and dangled everywhere from light poles and roofs, the mob filling every part of the street. As Roscoe and Elisha debated their move, The Tavern's door flew open and a conga line burst into the street, led by a sailor, with Trish holding his hips, one of her soldiers holding hers, and a dozen others snaking along behind them to the Latin music from the bar.*
Roscoe and Elisha pushed through the sidewalk mobs, and at State and Pearl they could see a patriotic bonfire blazing down by the Plaza. Roscoe remembered the ambivalent tensions of patriotism invading this block on the April day in 1943 when Alex went to war. Patsy had ordered up a parade with flags, bugles, drums, and an Albany Academy color guard marching the twenty-seven-year-old Mayor into a gilt-edged political future. Alex, off to serve his country as a buck private, marched with a platoon of other young bucks, proles mostly, none out of Albany Academy, Groton, and Yale like him, and none with the boneheaded insistence on rolling dice for his life. Roscoe, titular head of the local Draft Board, could easily have found an ailment to defer Alex, let him continue as Albany's boyish wartime mayor. But Patsy had given Alex the word: "Son, if you don't serve, you're all done in politics. They'll call you a slacker, and I won't run you for re-election. Go down and join the navy and we'll get you a commission." But Alex joined the army, asked for the infantry, and got it. And Elisha and Roscoe could not change his mind.
There he came that day, down the middle of State Street, Roscoe and Elisha right here beaming at their boy on his way to becoming food for powder-Elisha, elated by his son's political success, and Roscoe, the exulting mentor: Wasn't it I taught you to hold your whiskey, lad? Wasn't it I instructed you in the survival tactics of the carouse, at which you excelled early? Come back safe and soon, and we'll all rekindle the festive fire.
At Lodge Street they heard the organ music, and Elisha walked toward it through the open doors of St. Peter's. Roscoe arched an eyebrow but followed him into the old French Gothic bluestone church, an Episcopal parish well into its third century. The church was fully lit and half full of silent people staring at the altar, where seven candles burned in each of two silver candelabra, the pair a gift from Elisha's father, Ariel Fitzgibbon. Women were weeping, some in a state of rapture. Elderly couples were holding hands, young people whispering excitedly. A soldier knelt with head down on the back of the pew. A woman in mourning entered and instantly knelt in the middle aisle.
Pews were filling as Roscoe and Elisha stood at the back of the church, Roscoe bemused by Elisha's odd smile. Smiling that Alex would come back alive from Europe? Whatever was inside that stately head, Roscoe could not read it clearly. Elisha was scanning the church as if he were a tourist; but he was surely summoned here by what those familiar bells meant to his encrusted Episcopal soul. One stained-glass window through which the day's waning light was entering had been the gift, in the late 1870s, of Lyman Fitzgibbon. Designed by Burne-Jones, it bore a legend that read, "Per industria nil sine Numine"-Nothing through diligence without the Divine Will-which Roscoe translated as, "Don't make a serious move without the political okay."
An organist moved through a five-noted chant and then a glissando of the first two bars of "America," pausing on a long note, and then he began a second chant. Elisha interrupted the organist, returning to the anthem. "My country, 'tis of thee," he sang, with might in his voice, and every head turned to see this intruder continue with "Sweet land of liberty, / Of thee I sing...." The organist followed Elisha, and the solemnizers of peace joined him, the familiar music and words stirring their souls as the splendid pipes of this chorister from nowhere arced into the vault of the nave; and when the verse ended and the silence longed to explode into applause, Elisha continued with a little-known verse: "Let music swell the breeze, / And ring from all the trees / Sweet freedom's song...."
People applauded with simple nods and uncontrollably weepy smiles, all of them climbing down from the ramparts, linked by the newness of this peace that also needed leadership, affirming that Elisha had spoken aloud the very prayer they'd all been seeking in silence, the marrow of patriotic holiness achingly evoked by this saloon tenor whom Roscoe had never before known to sing solo in church, or sing so well in any saloon anywhere.
"Bravura performance," Roscoe said as they went out onto State Street.
"Cheap chauvinism," said Elisha. "I couldn't help myself. It was like having holy hiccups."
"You underrate your achievement. My blood cells turned red, white, and blue."
"Don't hold it against me. Remember that the kamikazes are still out there, and the war criminals will cut themselves in two rather than face the music."
"Kamikazes? War criminals?"
"Don't forget I said this."*
They walked to the Albany Garage, where Roscoe housed his two-door 1941 Plymouth, and they headed for Tivoli to rendezvous with Veronica, an upgrading of life for Roscoe just to see her. But as he drove, distracted, perhaps, by the gin, or by seeing Trish as a soldier-and-sailor sandwich, or relief at being rid of her, or by going public with his plan to quit politics, he began playing eye games with moving vehicles, blanking them out with his right eye, then his left, eliminating them entirely by closing both eyes.
"Why are you closing your eyes while you drive?" Elisha asked.
"I'm playing Albany roulette."
"Let me out."
"You'll be home in ten minutes."
"Playing games with death. You really are in trouble."
"I'm all right." But he kept closing one eye, then the other.
"This is a form of suicide," Elisha said. "Is that your plan?"
"No. Not my style."
"It's everybody's style at some point. And if you kill me while you're at it, that's murder."
"Not at all my style," Roscoe said.
"Open your eyes and listen to me. I'm the one who's quitting, not you."
Roscoe braked instantly and swerved to avoid sideswiping an oncoming trolley car, then climbed a curb and struck a small tree. The impact was light, but it drove the steering wheel into the deep folds of Roscoe's abdomen and threw Elisha into the windshield. Blood instantly gushed, and Elisha pressed his pocket handkerchief onto his forehead.
"Let me see that," Roscoe said, and when he saw the wound he said, "Stitches."
He backed the car onto the street and drove to Albany Hospital. They both could walk to the emergency room, which was accumulating assorted brawling louts and burn victims and skewed drivers like Roscoe, all celebrating peace with blood and fire and pain. As a nurse started to take Elisha off to stanch his bleeding, Roscoe asked, "What's this quitting stuff?"
"Believe me, it's real," Elisha said. "Unless you want to give Patsy a heart attack, don't you run off just yet."
"What the hell are you talking about?"
"I'm doing a fadeaway," Elisha said. "Time's up."
"Suddenly there's a retirement epidemic," Roscoe said. "Do you suppose the Japs put something in our drinking water?"
He felt new pain in his stomach, and his head ached from the resurrection of old doubt. You think you've done something radical and it turns out you've done nothing at all.*
Roscoe recognized a nun sitting in the next bay of the emergency room, Arlene Flinn from Arbor Hill, a Sister of the Sacred Heart, hundred and one pounds, tiny, dark-haired, sharp-nosed beauty in adolescence, when Roscoe had a crush on her. Those once-spunky eyes were now reshaped behind spectacles, her hair hidden under her starched wimple.
"Arlene?" he said. "Is that you?"
"Oh, Roscoe," she said. "Roscoe Conway."
Her tone of voice suggested to Roscoe that she remembered the day he caught her in his arms and kissed her by the holy-water fountain in St. Joseph's Church. Two days later she went off to the nunnery-the beginning of your control over women, Ros.
"Are you ill, Arlene?" he asked her.
"A toothache," she said. "The pain is horrible." She was humming something that sounded like a Benediction hymn-"O Salutaris," was it?
"How's your father?" he asked.
"Oh dear, my father," Arlene said. "He died six months ago."
"I didn't know. I never saw it in the paper."
"He died in Poughkeepsie. My brother didn't want it publicized."
"I knew he was down there. I'm sorry, Arlene."
"He hated all you politicians," she said. "Especially Patsy McCall."
"We offered him anything he wanted when he came out of jail. He wouldn't talk to us."
"Could you blame him?"
Roscoe chose not to answer. Arlene's father, Artie Flinn, had been the chief plugger for the Albany baseball pool, which Patsy ran. The federal DA indicted Artie when he was caught with plugged pool sheets and heavy money, and he got six years, the scapegoat. Patsy took care of Artie's wife and family while Artie was inside, but Artie came out Patsy's enemy. Also, he went strange, took to jumping off tall buildings into the river, holding the pet pigeon he brought home from jail, and letting the pigeon go before he hit the water. People told him he could fly like his pigeon, but in one jump a piece of sunken metal sliced off part of his left leg. He believed the leg would grow back, and when it didn't, he punched holes in it with an ice pick and had to be put away.
"I see your brother Roy from time to time," Roscoe said.
"I don't see him," Arlene said. "I don't approve of that newspaper he runs. It's scandalous. Roscoe, where's that dentist? I can't stand this pain."
"Have a swig of this and hold it on the tooth." He handed her his flask of compassionate gin.
She held the gin, then swallowed it, took a second, squidged her cheek and held it, swallowed it, "Sweet Mother, Roscoe, this doesn't help a bit," then a third gin, and he told her to keep the flask as they took him for X-rays of his rib cage.
"When are you going to get this holy woman a dentist?" Roscoe asked the nurse.
"He's on the way," the nurse said.
Roscoe's X-rays were negative, and a young intern suggested an ice bag for his stomach and gave him a packet of pills for his blood pressure. "You'll be sore, but nothing's broken and we don't see any bleeding."
Roscoe saw Veronica standing by a half-open curtain in the bay where Elisha lay on a stretcher. Her long blond hair was wrapped into a quick knot at the back of her head, she wore no makeup and was barelegged in low heels and a candy-striped summer dress. Roscoe thought she looked sublime.
"What's the verdict?" he asked her.
She kissed his cheek. "They're taking him upstairs for the stitches. How are your bruises?""If Elisha has a concussion," Veronica said, "they'll keep him overnight."
A nurse came to wheel Elisha out.
"Are you all right?" Elisha asked Roscoe.
"Better than you," Roscoe said. "Artie Flinn's daughter, Arlene, is here with a toothache. She's a nun."
"Is that Artie Flinn from the baseball pool?" Veronica asked.
"Artie was not one of our finest hours," Elisha said. "What's he doing?"
"He died in Poughkeepsie six months ago," Roscoe said.
"Tragic," Elisha said. "We couldn't protect him. I never knew his daughter."
"I had a crush on her in school," Roscoe said. "My behavior drove her into the nunnery."
"He's bragging again," Veronica said.
"I'll catch up with you two after your stitches," Roscoe said.
In the waiting room Arlene was walking in circles, waving Roscoe's flask, still singing her hymn, very loud: "...Quae coeli pandis ostium; Bella premunt hostilia..." She was off balance from the drink, and a nurse was about to take her in hand when she whirled away and backhanded the nurse's jaw with Roscoe's flask. "Where are you, Jesus?" she called out. "I'm in pain. Quae coeli pandis ostium..."
An intern moved to help the nurse subdue the wild nun, but Roscoe stepped in and said, "I'll take care of her, Doctor. I'm her cousin, and my brother is a dentist. Tell your dentist to go to hell for his next patient."
"God bless you, Roscoe," Arlene said. "The pain is awful and the gin is gone."
She wobbled and almost fell, Roscoe's first gin-soaked nun. He swept her into his arms, a feather, the pain from his trauma twisting a small knife in his belly as he carried her to the parking lot.
"This is the date we never had, Arlene," he said. "I dearly love the way you turned out."
"Don't you dare be nice to me, Roscoe. I don't want it. I'm going to stay a virgin till I die." She resumed her hymn-"...Bella premunt hostilia..."-as he drove her uptown in his car with the dented bumper.
"I've never known a woman like you, Arlene."
"Doesn't surprise me."
"Let's take a boat to Bermuda."
"I've still got a toothache."
Roscoe found Doc Reardon, who did free dental work for select Democrats, and he promptly eliminated her pain and fixed the blessed tooth. Arlene then promised Roscoe and the doc a place among the lesser angels.
"God bless you, too, Arlene," Roscoe said. "God bless all nuns and all women." Then he thought of Trish and added, "Most women."*
He drove Arlene back to the Academy of the Sacred Heart at Kenwood, hoping her time with him would incite a convent-wide scandal, then went back to the hospital to check on Elisha. But he'd been sent home, no concussion after all. It was ten-thirty, too late to visit, a missed opportunity to be with Veronica. Roscoe went back to his car in the emergency-room parking lot. Where to go now? He watched ambulances and cars come and go with the dying and the wounded from the peaceful home front. He dwelled on Artie Flinn, casualty of the political wars, a man who'd been making a fortune but ran out of luck. What other disasters will unfold for Roscoe on this night of radical developments? He could go to Trish's apartment and retrieve his clothes out of her closet. She might be there with four sailors. Go home and get some sleep, Ros. But who can sleep on V-J night? Go find a woman, then. Shouldn't be difficult tonight. But if you don't score, don't even think of buying one, they're watching you. You should have kidnapped Arlene, your prototype of ideal beauty. You could've talked about the good old days of young sin. They don't make sin like they used to. Also, your stomach is rumbling. You never finished your dinner. Forget women and celebrate the Jap surrender with a steak. Or three hamburgers. Or a hot beef sandwich at the Morris Lunch, two hot beefs with double home fries and a wedge of apple pie with a custard-pie chaser. He drove to the Miss Albany Diner on Central Avenue, open all night, found it dark. A sign in the window reported, "No Food." The Boulevard Cafeteria, never closes, was open but no steaks, no roast beef, no ham, no hamburgers, no eggs. All they had was bread, coffee, and no cream. The whole town ate out tonight. Roscoe had two orders of buttered toast, a plate of pickle slices, black coffee, and went back to his car. The streets were busy but no more traffic jams. The frenzy wanes. Who'll be at the bar in the Elks Club? Who cares? Roscoe did not want to talk about war or peace or politics, not even the Cutie Diversion. What do you want, Ros? How about Hattie? Yes, a very good idea. Hattie Wilson, his perennial love. He did love her, always would. He wouldn't lay a hand on her. That's not what Roscoe is looking for right now. What's more, isn't Hattie married to O.B., Roscoe's brother? Yes, she is. Roscoe wants only straight talk, smart talk, maybe a little sweet talk with Hattie, who is wise, who is a comfort. Six husbands and still nubile. Get your mind off nubility, for chrissake. He drove to Lancaster Street east of Dove Street and parked across from Hattie's house. All four floors were dark. She could be awake in the back of the house, probably asleep. Roscoe did not want to get her out of bed to carry on a conversation-about what? Why are you waking me up in the middle of the night, Rosky? I wish I knew, old Hat. Never mind waking up. Some other time, Hat. Roscoe drove back to the hotel and told the doorman to send his car back to the garage. He decided to go upstairs, order room service, and go to bed, but the saboteurs had preceded him. No more room service tonight. So Roscoe settled into his suite on the tenth floor, ordered ice for his ice bag from the bellman, ate a Hershey bar out of the drawer, poured himself a double gin, hold the quinine, swallowed his blood-pressure pills with the gin, toasted peace in the world and freedom from politics, then went to bed hungry.A FLAGRANT DEPARTURE
V-J Day-plus-one was a holiday for much of the city, a day of prayer, thanksgiving, and patriotism, the main speech of the day given on the Capitol steps by Marcus Gorman, the noted criminal lawyer who had become Albany's Demosthenes. Bart Merrigan, in his role as Albany's commander of the American Legion, was master of ceremonies and introduced Marcus, who thanked God in his mercy for restoring justice and honor to the world, two commodities Marcus had spent his career subverting. Roscoe sent Joey Manucci up to Patsy's summer house on the mountain with news of Cutie LaRue as a possible candidate. Patsy loved the idea and sent word back to Roscoe to hire Eddie Brodie as Cutie's speechwriter, the man who would help Cutie lose. Brodie, an ex-newspaperman, had helped Jimmy McCoy lose in 1937 by coining his campaign remark: "I never met a woman I liked as much as my dog."
At late morning Veronica called Roscoe to say Elisha woke with a headache but was feeling better, and talking about going to the office in the afternoon. Roscoe spent half the day in bed with his ice bag, ate supper alone in the hotel dining room, then went back to bed. A phone call woke him and he sat up in the darkness to answer it: 4 a.m. on the luminous face of his alarm clock. He heard Gladys Meehan say, "It's Elisha, Roscoe." He switched on the bed-table light, and there was Elisha on the wall in that famous photo with Roscoe and Patsy, election night, 1921, when those three young rebels, their smiles exuding power and joy at taking City Hall back from the Republicans, were about to found the new city of war and love.
"What about Elisha?"
"Everything," Gladys said. "Come immediately. The mill."
Roscoe had the bellman call up his car and he drove to Fitzgibbon Steel, a small city of twenty-nine buildings-rolling mills, forges, furnaces, shearing shops, machine shops, and a maze of Delaware and Hudson Railroad tracks running through it all. It covered twenty-eight acres between Broadway and the river in the northeast corner of the city, and had employed fifteen hundred men and a hundred women in the peak war years.
Roscoe parked by the mill's office in the machine-shop building and went in past the night guard, up to the third floor, the stairs aggravating his pain. He found Gladys in a leather chair staring at Elisha, whose horn-rim glasses were on his desk, a flesh-colored bandage on his forehead where it had hit the windshield. The sleeves of his tailor-made blue shirt were rolled to the elbow, his dark-blue tie loose at the open collar, his gray suit-coat on the back of his chair, hands folded in his lap, chin on his chest, wearing his favorite cordovan wingtips, and facing the fireplace full of ashes. His face was pale blue, and strands of his hair, gray as the chromium steel he manufactured, hung in his eyes, which Gladys had closed.
Elisha at fifty-four.
As Roscoe stared at him, Elisha stood up, walked to the bathroom, and began shaving with his electric razor. Roscoe followed him.
"Who gave you the okay to die?" Roscoe asked.
"You know what they say," Elisha said. "Never meet the enemy on his own ground."
"If you don't have a solution, you transform the problem."
"The same old EP on the bing and the kitty bosso..."
Then Elisha, in the midst of his peerless babble, fell over backward, dead again.
"I've been here all night," Gladys said to Roscoe. "He came in at seven o'clock last night and called me at the house and asked me to come back."
"With that head injury, I'm surprised Veronica let him go out."
"He convinced her he was all right."
"When did he die?"
"I don't know. I slept, I woke up and saw him, and I called you. We worked hours in the file room pulling out old letters. I got filthy moving those boxes. He knew the exact years. He'd read one file and ask for another. Then he'd burn some in the fireplace. He said to give you this." She handed Roscoe a notarized letter from Elisha naming Roscoe executor of his estate. "He told me, 'The enemy is closing in,' and I asked him, 'Who?' and he said, 'Roscoe will figure it out.' What enemy, Roscoe?"
"We have many," Roscoe said, pocketing the letter. "What did he burn?"
"Real-estate files, contracts, deeds, canceled checks, letters, insurance papers, bank statements out of the safe."
"Write down any specifics you remember. Why did you stay so late?"
"After he burned the papers I started to leave, but he said, 'Can you stay tonight? I need your company.' It's the first time he ever admitted he needed me. Twenty-five years, every day all day, sometimes weekends, trusting me to do what needed doing."
Gladys stared at Elisha in his death chair, put her hand on his forehead, and stroked the hair off his face. He opened his eyes and winked at her.
"Mac was coming over to the house on his dinner break," she said, "but I called and told him I was working late. Then Elisha poured us some whiskey from a Christmas bottle he had on the closet shelf. I never drink whiskey."
The whiskey and two empty glasses were on Elisha's desk.
"Where did you sleep?"
"On the sofa. He stayed in the chair, thank you."
"How did he do it?"
"What? You think he did it?"
"So do you, don't you? Why did you call me instead of the ambulance?"
"Who else would I call?"
"How about Veronica?"
"She wouldn't know what to do, how to protect him. She'd end up calling you anyway."
"You find any bottles or pills?"
"I didn't look."
They looked in the desk, in the safe, in Elisha's coat, in the cardigans hanging in the closet, in the medicine cabinet, in all his pockets, but found no pills, only a wallet. Roscoe counted its cash: "Four hundred and seventy-seven," he said, and put the money back in the wallet and pocketed it.
Roscoe examined the photos on the desk: Elisha and Veronica sailing with their boy Gilby; Alex in battle jacket, steel helmet, and boots, jabbing his rifle-with-bayonet at the camera. On the wall, Elisha was being sworn in as lieutenant governor, and Roscoe remembered his line after taking the oath: "This is a great job for a man with misguided ambition." There was Elisha at a 1929 political dinner with Governor FDR, and again in 1943 with President FDR as he made Elisha a dollar-a-year man for donating his expertise in steel production to the wartime government, the check for one dollar framed with the photo.
In a corner of the office stood another fragment of history, a silvery-gray 1860 Fitzgibbon woodstove, chrome-trimmed, three mica windows, sculpted feet, a work of foundry art made by Lyman Fitzgibbon, who established the foundry when the world was new and turned out three hundred stoves a day, ninety thousand a year, until the industry went west to the ore sources. The foundry tripled the fortune Lyman had already made through land speculation and railroads, the same fortune Ariel, Elisha's father, would fribble away, and that Elisha, when he was barely out of college, young magus of the new day, would replenish. With the help of a Yale classmate's father's two patents, for making rail joints and springs for railroad cars, he stabilized the firm. He then oversaw the introduction of the first electric furnaces for making alloy steels, and the very early pouring of stainless steel in the U.S., both ventures coming just after the first war. How did he know so much about steel? He began at the blacksmith level, rolled up his sleeves with every worker who could teach him anything; did the same at the research level of the industry and became an intuitive wonder.
It was going for five, and the first shift of the shops came in at six-fifteen. Roscoe swept the ashes out of the fireplace and flushed them down the toilet, Gladys vacuumed the fireplace and rug and dusted the room, and Roscoe called his brother at Hattie's house.
"Who's calling at this hour?" Hattie asked.
"It's Roscoe, Hat. Put O.B. on."
"Yeah," said the half-asleep O.B.
"Need you at the mill," Roscoe said. "There's been a bad accident and I need you. Immediately."
"For chrissake, just get here." And Roscoe hung up.
Gladys handed him her list of files Elisha had burned, then collapsed back into her chair. Roscoe started to pour two short whiskeys but decided that maybe this whiskey was poisoned. He let it sit and found an unopened bottle on Elisha's closet shelf and poured the drinks. He and Gladys sipped the whiskey while they waited for O.B.'s official police inquiry to begin, an inquiry that would willfully discover death from natural causes and little else. If anyone discovered anything true about this death it would be Roscoe.
"Whiskey twice in the middle of the night," Gladys said. "What's the world coming to?"
"Less and less."
Roscoe opened the drapes on the interior picture window that offered a view of the great machines in the shop below: lathes, drills, punches, boring mills, monster planers, and the great cranes that loomed over all three bays of the shop. Elisha had built this window for the vision it gave of the world he'd salvaged out of the ashes of his father's folly, a world he'd known so intimately for thirty-four years and which, until this morning, depended on him for its perpetuation, just as the Party had depended on him. Roscoe watched the sun entering the machine shop's windows, watched it rise on Fitzgibbon Steel's thirty-six smokestacks and shape them into long black fingers pointing upward into this shabby new day.
"Could you have predicted this?" Roscoe asked Gladys.
"What was the situation here at the mill this week?"
"His brother, Gordon, really thought he was taking charge. He and his sisters have been scheming to take control, because Elisha's been in Washington so long and profits are down. They blame him, but anybody with half a brain knows it's because the war was ending. They had awful fights." Gordon was the senior vice-president of the City Exchange Bank.
"Elisha wouldn't kill himself for that," Roscoe said.
"Riddles," Gladys said. "This place'll go straight to hell without him, and Alex won't have anything to do with it. It'll be a battle royal between Veronica and the family lawyers. And I'll be out on the street."
"Whoever runs it, they'll need you."
Roscoe felt an odd intimacy with Gladys. For as long as they'd known each other they'd each spoken only to the other's public self. Gladys sipped her whiskey, gave a shudder, and set the glass on the desk.
"You know what he did last night, Roscoe? He kissed me."
"He do that often?"
"Once a year, maybe, on the cheek. Last night on the mouth, sweetly. He always kept tabs on my skirt. Somebody sent him pictures of naked women about fifteen years ago, and of course I always opened his mail. 'You in the market for this stuff?' I asked him. He held one photo up. 'That's what I figure you look like,' he said. 'It's close,' I said, 'but you'll never know.' 'I know,' he said, 'a bitter denial.'"
But "bitter" wasn't the word. Roscoe understood how Elisha could have worked up a quiet, arm's-length love for Gladys, a woman of durable good looks that fluctuated with perms and marcels not always in he r own best interest; sturdy, busty, feminine, always wore pumps, and everyone, not only Elisha, monitored her legs. She'd gone the novena route for years and tried to keep the commandments. But going with Mac the cop must have led to repetitive spiels in the Saturday-night confessional: Bless me, Father, for I have sinned; I did it again with that same fella. She dressed modestly in fashions that didn't change much, and Elisha once said her smile could warm the north wind. She'd never married, and Mac wasn't a prospect. Mac's wife had left town years ago, but he wouldn't divorce her. Also, that subterranean love Gladys and Elisha shared, a silent love presumably without consequence, had probably spoiled her for others.
"That kiss," Roscoe said, "that was the extent of it?"
"No. He also said, 'If I ever told you what I felt, you'd put your hat on and tell me to go to hell. But you know it anyway.' And I did know. I always knew. I'm so glad I was here, Roscoe. I fell asleep after the whiskey, but I remember asking was he going away anyplace, and he said, 'If I leave you'll know it.'"
"Do you want to go home and sleep?" Roscoe asked.
"The last time I fell asleep Elisha died. Besides, I should call the undertaker."
"That's Veronica's job."
"I always make his travel arrangements. Aren't you going to call Veronica?"
"I'll go get her when O.B. gets here."
"You can start over with her now," Gladys said.
"She'll expect it. So will everybody else."
"What does that mean?"
"Really, Roscoe, do you know how transparent you are sometimes?"
Roscoe heard car doors closing. Oswald Brian Conway, his younger brother and Albany's chief of police, unshaven and in his baggy gray sharkskin, stepped off the elevator with two of his Night Squad boys behind him, Bo Linder and Joe Spivak. Roscoe asked the detectives to wait outside and let no one in. O.B. went directly to Elisha and stared at him.
"What happened to him?"
"He decided his life was over."
"I don't get it," O.B. said.
"Nobody does," Roscoe said. "Who's the coroner on duty?"
"Nolan. I didn't call him yet."
"Don't. We'll do this alone for now. It goes down as a natural death."
"Are we sure it's a suicide and not a murder?"
"Gladys was here all night, working with him."
"How are you, Gladys?" O.B. said. "You didn't murder him, did you?"
"Not even in my dreams. Is Mac coming?" Mac was O.B.'s partner.
"He must be in bed," O.B. said. "He went off duty at four-thirty. Does Patsy know?"
"No," said Roscoe. "I can't use the phone for this. Send one of your boys up to tell him. But don't mention suicide. And don't, for God's sake, let anybody leak it to the press. I don't want Veronica hearing it on the radio."
"When are you getting her?"
"Now. You want a lift home, Gladys?"
"I suppose so," Gladys said.
"You go get Veronica," O.B. said. "That's priority. I'll see Gladys gets home. This thing stinks out loud."
"It'll get louder," Roscoe said. He picked up his suit coat and went out.ROSCOE AND VERONICA
Everybody knew he was insane about her when they were young. Insane. Pressing, pressing, pressing her to marry him. But Elisha dazzled her with his razzmatazz and the family fortune he had regenerated. And Veronica, with sweet pets and kisses, told Roscoe one of her lovely lies: "My darling Ros, you love me so much you'll absolutely die if I marry you, but Eli will die if I don't marry him." Roscoe remembered trying to decide which train he should walk in front of; but he got over that and tried not to blame Veronica for defecting. She was no golddigger, just a moderately rich girl who suffered from money. And Elisha had much more money than she. Also, Elisha was a winner and a great guy, and who the hell was Roscoe, anyway? A young punk lawyer with a talent for fun. Roscoe brooded and did the next best thing to marrying Veronica: he married her sister, Pamela, a liaison that carried on interminably for four days, then turned into several previously unknown forms of unkindness.
Roscoe stopped at the Morris Diner in North Albany to get just-baked French crullers and coffee for Veronica. She loved those crullers (so did Roscoe), and with the coffee and sugar they'd give her a rush so she wouldn't nauseate in front of dead Elisha. He then drove up the hill to Van Rensselaer Boulevard, where the great estate of Tivoli-Veronica suddenly its sovereign-had stood since Lyman built it, a landscape of dream for Albanians of the last century. The estate's mansion was sited on the plateau that ran along the crest of the river valley, giving a vista of the serene and turbulent Hudson, the green heights of Rensselaer, and the Berkshire Hills beyond. But vista was secondary to the builder, who wanted solitude, isolation above the crowd, a desire that belonged to yesterday. Now Roscoe moved along the boulevard past a row of new and boxy little houses owned by Italian grocers and German plumbers, past Wolfert's Roost Country Club, founded by newsmen and politicians, then drove through the open wrought-iron gates and up the long, winding driveway to Tivoli, his second home.
"Why are you here at this hour?" Veronica asked him over coffee in her breakfast room. "The last time you brought breakfast you and Elisha were going fishing."
The sight of her in a Chinese dressing gown, her golden hair loose and only slightly mussed from sleep, quickened Roscoe's heart, but he told it to behave itself.
"I need your help," he said. "Eat a cruller."
"You need my help?" She bit into a cruller.
"He didn't come home last night," she said. "He stayed at the office."
"I know that."
"Were you with him?"
"Is he in trouble?"
"Is it the head injury? He was fine when he called."
"He's in the office. In his chair. Now, don't hold me to this, Vee, but I think he killed himself."
She squeezed her bitten cruller between fingers and palm, rolling it into a wad of dough as she looked at Roscoe.
"No," she said, and shook her head, "he wouldn't do that."
"Maybe he didn't do it. I could be wrong."
"You're certain he's dead."
"I'm certain." And he put Elisha's wallet on the table.
"That bastard. That bastard!"
"Atta girl. You tell him."
She dropped the wadded cruller and it rolled across the table to Roscoe. She picked up the wallet and put it against her face.
"He wasn't ready to die," she said, and the tears were coming now. Roscoe couldn't look at them.
"Go get dressed, Vee. I'll take you down to the mill."
When she was dressed and they were in the car she asked Roscoe, "Why do you say suicide?"
"He burned papers and files he didn't want anybody to see. It was a methodical ending."
"How did he do it?"
"I don't know. Not with a gun."
"Why didn't he come home and do it?"
"Maybe he didn't want to make a mess for you. Maybe he didn't want anybody saving him. Or maybe the idea of death arrived in such a perfect state that he had to act instantly, a fatal muse descending, and there was only submission, no alternative."
"Something's very wrong with me. I never saw it coming."
"None of us did," Roscoe said.
"It's me he left. He was through with me."
"Nonsense. Who'd ever leave you?"
"He ran away from something, or somebody. Who else is there to run away from?"
"There was no cowardice in him," Roscoe said. "He'd face anything."
"You're so loyal. To both of us."
"I'm not loyal," Roscoe said. "I'm a traitor."
"Of course you are. God should give the world more traitors like you."
When he drove into the office parking lot at the mill, Roscoe saw men already at work in the traffic manager's office, so, rather than subject Veronica to their scrutiny, he parked at the side entrance. They went briskly in past the security cubicle, where Roscoe saw Frank Maynard and two of his guards whispering-The word is out-and up the back stairs to Elisha's office. Joe Spivak sat by the door, guarding the integrity of the death room. Nothing had been taken away or added, but as Roscoe entered, the room became an antechamber where he sensed he had to begin. Begin what? Not courting the widow. He might get to that. Might. This was something else, and he knew it wouldn't easily be defined. He also knew he now could not quit the Party; and he knew Elisha had known that would happen.
Veronica walked to the dead Elisha and looked down at him, shaking her head no, no, no. "Oh Lord, Roscoe, it's true." And she crumpled in front of Elisha.
Roscoe gestured to Joe Spivak to get out, then lifted Veronica into the large leather chair where Gladys had also sat to stare at her dead love. "Slow, now, Vee. Take it slow."
"He doesn't even look a little bit sick," Veronica said, her eyes wet again.
"Maybe he wasn't sick."
"He had to be."
She stood up and walked to Elisha, hiked her skirt and straddled his lap, ran her hands through his hair.
"Were you sick, Elisha? How could you be that sick without my knowing it? You're already a chunk of rubber." She gave him a weeping kiss. "What went so wrong you had to quit everything in such a hurry? You couldn't wait to see your son come home from winning the war? Whatever it was we could've fixed it." She lifted his left hand and studied it, then took his diamond ring and gold watch from the dead finger and wrist. Lacking pockets, she put them inside her brassiere. She stared at Elisha, then kissed him and sat back. "Look at you. Look what you've done to yourself. Bastard." She slapped his face.
"Veronica," Roscoe said. "Get a grip."
He helped her stand and she tried to stop weeping.
"I thought I knew him. He's a dead stranger."
"Staying alive isn't anybody's obligation," Roscoe said. "I'm betting he had a reason."
Veronica let Roscoe put his arms around her while she wept-spasmic, throaty crying. Roscoe held grief in his arms and knew he could die of happiness, a traitor, embracing his best friend's wife. Yes, it's true, Elisha, old pal. You're dead and we're not. Then Veronica stabbed him in the heart with her breast, a wound that meant nothing to her. Sweet Roscoe, comfort me, let me fail in your arms, hold me close, feel how soft I am. But this is all you get, and don't think this counts. You're a wonderful fellow, Roscoe. Don't crowd me.
"It's okay, Vee," he said to her. "Let it out."
"Oh, Roscoe, Roscoe," she said. "What is going on here?"
"A temporary mystery. We'll figure it out."
"I loved him so."
"Sure you did."
She raised her head off his shoulder, trying to stop crying, and he saw she was abashed by their embrace. What a surprise. She smiled and stepped back from him, walked to the desk, and picked up the photo of Elisha, Roscoe, and herself in the winner's circle with Pleasure Power the day he won the Travers at Saratoga.
"I want to take this home," she said.
"I'll get an envelope."
She picked up the photo of Alex in his army uniform. "We have to tell Alex," she said.
"We'll call the army, have them cable him. I'll do that."
Roscoe would do it all. And Alex would come home safely from the war to find that his father, not he, was the post-armistice casualty. Roscoe slid the Saratoga picture into a large envelope and sealed its clasp. He walked Veronica down the stairs and toward the line of men arriving for work in the machine shop. They had all heard about Elisha, and Roscoe answered their condolences with nods and salutes as he and Veronica passed them.
Sorry, Missus Fitz.
The sunlight was making intensely black shadows of the men as they stood in line to punch the time clock in the mill. They all spoke their regrets.
Sorry, sorry, Missus Fitz. Sorry, sorry. Really sorry.
"Good morning, men, and thank you," Veronica said in a sharp, recovering voice, raising her head to meet their eyes. "Good morning, yes, good morning, men, and thank you. Thank you so much. Such a beautiful day to die."
Table of Contents
What People are Saying About This
"Driven by a narrative electricity as alive as post-war America. Roscoe is Kennedy's finest novel since Ironweed." —The Boston Globe
"This is a novel that, as they say, has it all.... Kennedy is a writer with something to say, about matters that touch us all, and he does it with uncommon artistry." —Michael Thomas, The Washington Post
"A beaut, deadly serious high comedy propelled by soaring flights of linguistic legerdemain." —Ward Just, The New York Times Book Review
"This new book has a lyricism and a gusto rarely achieved in serious American novels about politics.... Roscoe may, in fact, be Kennedy's greatest." —Tom Mallon, The Atlantic Monthly
"An exuberant portrait of political and sexual intrigue. Its politics are backroom and bare-knuckle, all about power and money." —USA Today
"William Kennedy writes so melodiously about the Irish ruffians of old Albany, NY he could make Philip Roth wish he were Catholic." —San Francisco Chronicle
Reading Group Guide
Roscoe, William Kennedy's delectably tragicomic novel of mid-1940s political intrigue, begins at a moment of national triumph, and, it would appear, personal capitulation. As church bells toll and the residents of Albany, New York dance in the streets to celebrate the end of World War II, Roscoe Conway, the courtly, Falstaffian, behind-the-scenes operator of the city's Democratic machine for the past quarter century, knocks back his gin and quinine water in a downtown hotel lobby and concludes that he has had enough. He quietly informs his longtime cohorts, party boss Patsy McCall and local steel magnate Elisha Fitzgibbon, whose wife, Veronica, Roscoe has been hopelessly in love with for years, that he is leaving politics and that the upcoming gubernatorial election will be his last campaign. However, as Roscoe soon discovers, his world of graft, violence, and shifting power does not lend itself to easy or graceful exits.
When Elisha unexpectedly dies, and as his own health begins to fail, Roscoe discovers that the upcoming mayoral campaign and the governor closing in on Democratic whorehouses and gambling operations are the least of his worries. He finds himself drawing upon his every resource to protect his late friend's family in a custody battle; to smooth out a deadly feud between Patsy and his brother Bindy; to defuse the exploding rivalry between Roscoe's chief-of-police brother, O.B., and his colleague Mac McEvoy, over the long ago killing of Jack (Legs) Diamond; and to make a last, poignant attempt to recapture his long-lost love, Veronica. Only Roscoe's Machiavellian imagination can cope with these erupting developments.
In Roscoe Conway, William Kennedy creates a hero for his times and, perhaps, for all time. As Thomas Mallon wrote in his review of the novel in The Atlantic Monthly, "It is Roscoe who makes things work. We know just why he wants out, and just why he's stayed in." He is a consummate liar and thief, a master at extortion and backroom deals, who still responds valiantly to the calls of duty, loyalty, and friendship. For all its moments of humor and fellowship, Kennedy's narrative also brims with a sense of foreboding, and the fragility of the barrier between life and death. Churning with repressed feelings, Roscoe is anxious to come to terms with a life that he now partially regards as empty and fraudulent. And every step in the novel leads him back to the past—to his battlefield heroics in World War I, the early loss of his true love, the takeover of city hall, and the machine's fight with Franklin D. Roosevelt and Al Smith to elect a governor.
Skillfully interweaving political exploits and the fictional chicanery of a brilliantly conceived cast of characters, Roscoe gives William Kennedy aficionados a welcome return to the mythic, magical Albany that is Kennedy's signature creation. It was hailed by Thomas Mallon as "the best novel of city-hall politics to appear in ages . . . it has a lyricism and gusto rarely achieved in serious American novels about politics, which are rare to begin with." Thomas Flanagan, writing in The New York Review of Books, said that "Kennedy has no master when it comes to the juicy and horrifying story of city and state politics . . . [his] deepest allegiance is to language, and in return it lets him say just about whatever he wants to say." Thick with "crime, passion, and backroom banter" (The New Yorker), Roscoe offers "an exuberant portrait of political and sexual intrigue" (USA Today).
ABOUT WILLIAM KENNEDY
William Kennedy, author, screenwriter and playwright, was born and raised in Albany, New York. Kennedy brought his native city to literary life in many of his works. The Albany cycle, includes Legs, Billy Phelan's Greatest Game, and the Pulitzer Prize winning Ironweed. The versatile Kennedy wrote the screenplay for Ironweed, the play Grand View, and cowrote the screenplay for the The Cotton Club with Francis Ford Coppola. Kennedy also wrote the nonfiction O Albany! and Riding the Yellow Trolley Car. Some of the other works he is known for include Roscoe and Very Old Bones.
Kennedy is a professor in the English department at the State University of New York at Albany. He is the founding director of the New York State Writers Institute and, in 1993, was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He has received numerous literary awards, including the Literary Lions Award from the New York Public Library, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and a Governor's Arts Award. Kennedy was also named Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters in France and a member of the board of directors of the New York State Council for the Humanities.
A CONVERSATION WITH WILLIAM KENNEDY
You might justly be referred to as the prose Poet Laureate of Albany. Had you grown up elsewhere, do you think you would have found equivalent creative possibilities in another place, or is there something especially rich about your hometown?
Yes, Albany has a long and illustrious and notorious history and I've used it often. But I've also been obsessed by the sense of place in fiction and I'd probably have written about wherever I was raised, no matter how unsung or remote the town.Winesburg, Ohio was and remains a magical work of fiction to me. I'm sure I'd have written about another town, but maybe not have gotten nine or ten books out of it.
Your most famous novel, Ironweed, concerns essentially powerless people. Roscoe Conway is at the other end of that spectrum. Not very many people can discuss both groups with equal dexterity. How does writing about a "have" differ from writing about a "have not"?
Not much. The have-nots are as complex as the haves and so are their worlds. The problem for the writer is to imagine them into existence with such authenticity that they convince the reader that they, and the worlds they inhabit, are both real.
As you look back on the trajectory of the Albany Cycle of novels, how do you see yourself as having evolved as an artist from the author of Legs to the author of Roscoe?
I sometimes feel like the lizard that crawls out of the water and stands upright as Homo sapiens. But when Homo sapiensgoes swimming—or starts another novel—he turns back into a lizard and starts over. Evolution is difficult and capricious. It's not easy being a lizard.
Like Balzac's Comédie Humaine and Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha novels, the Albany Cycle routinely revisits characters from earlier volumes. Unlike the case of writing a single novel, you can't revise the draft to accommodate new developments. You are stuck with your previous books as they are. Have you ever wished you could go back and change an earlier book to give yourself more leeway in a current book?
I have done just that repeatedly—revisiting Francis Phelan in Very Old Bones and in The Flaming Corsage to view his life before and after Ironweed. Also I returned to Jack Diamond in Roscoe to solve his murder, which I hadn't yet done when writing Legs. I may use Daniel Quinn, the young protagonist of Quinn's Book, in my novel in progress, focusing on the latter part of his life as seen through the imagination of his grandson.
You write ably about politics. However, despite its realism, your writing also reveals a fascination with romance and dreamlike visions. How do you manage to keep such seemingly disparate modes of thought in balance?
Politics is not separable from love or crime or family. It's one fragment of the writer's subject, which is human behavior in a chosen context. Politics and romance are forms of behavior, and dreamlike visions are another, encountered in sleep perhaps, or in the byways of desire and religion.
Roscoe says early on that he is capable of neither truth nor lying and that this trait is what makes a truly successful politician. Is it also what makes a successful writer?
Truth-tellers can't write novels. Great novels are exquisite lies.
You suggested elsewhere that the Albany of your fiction is a microcosm of America. However, this microcosm is notably Irish and Catholic. Do you think the religious and ethnic affiliation of your characters bears significantly on your ability to tell quintessentially American stories?
Irish Catholics are American, so are the black Baptists in Faulkner, and the Jews from Newark in Philip Roth. We move our characters through the fragments of American place and history to which we can bear witness with credibility; and if we succeed, the fragment illuminates more than itself. Fiction doesn't speak with generalities, but with particulars; and those are where the reader finds what is quintessential in his subject. But there is no such thing as quintessential America.
The figures who have influenced your writing—Joyce, Hemingway, and Faulkner, to name just a few—are practically endless, yet your style has somehow remained distinct. How have you been able to absorb so much while maintaining a unique and independent voice?
Babies learn to speak by imitating their parents; aspiring writers do the same with authors who ignite their imaginations. But you can't survive as a writer by thievery, which is to say imitating the works of others. Banish Faulkner. Exorcise Joyce. To hell with Hemingway. This way lies originality.
In Roscoe, you mention real names like Roosevelt, Al Smith, and "Legs" Diamond quite freely. However, the governor of New York in 1945 is always "the Governor"—never Thomas E. Dewey. What accounts for this interesting hiccup of anonymity?
I fictionalized Roosevelt and Smith within the boundaries of known history (known to me) and also I felt I knew them both. But I had to invent new behavior for the Governor and I did not want anyone's rage for Mr. Dewey's historical reality interfering with my imagination; so I liberated myself from his name. I did this with him also in my play Grand View, in which the Governor is a major character, offstage. I now feel his anonymity in both the novel and the play was unnecessary. Mr. Dewey would have survived any warping of history by me. But seemliness is also a virtue, occasionally.
You have also written for the stage and screen, yet the novel is pretty evidently your genre of choice. Why do you suppose you became William Kennedy the novelist instead of Kennedy the poet or playwright?
I read poetry all the time but writing it is as alien to me as higher mathematics. I thought of becoming a playwright early on but abandoned it as too collaborative. I've come back to it in recent years without reservation, but now as a marginal venture that has new fascination for me. Screenwriting, which is subservient collaboration, was fun, and so was the money. But they almost never make the movie. The novel is the form that cannot be compromised. It is a solitary endeavor and it is the writing art most open to creating the complex panorama of an individual life. The unities are always constrictive in writing the play; and also, but less so, the film script. But the novel is promiscuous—it embraces everything.
Roscoe Conway is, in elemental terms, an aging conman who wants to quit the game but is too engrossed (and, perhaps, having too much fun) to tear himself away. Are we to assume that all resemblances between a fifty-five-year-old politico and a novelist in his late seventies are purely coincidental?
Roscoe wanted to quit the political life he'd learned from his father and had practiced for decades, but he couldn't. He was trapped by his allegiances and his love, and the need to fight the good fight, again. The novelist in his late seventies is trapped by his love of the word and the need to finish a novel-in-progress. He has no plan to quit the writing life he's known for so long. He believes he will leave it in the way that Albany's Democratic Mayors leave City Hall—feet first. This is a very old joke that is almost true and is so funny the novelist has to laugh yet again. Politics and literature do go on.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
It's rather obvious from the beginning that Roscoe is going to be an amazing person. Standing firm in the midst of constant moral ambiguity, he shows us what it truly means to be a man in a foggy world. We are indeed very fortunate to have him in our lives, even if it is in a book.
The story of one man's immersion in a world of political and personal corruption, this novel follows the efforts of political operative Roscoe Conway to break free from the milieu in which he's spent his adult life: Albany politics. Mixing political shenanigans with Depression-era bootlegging and gangsterism, the story opens shortly after the end of World War II with our eponymous hero seeking a way out. But his buddies, Patsy McCall (the town's Democratic Party boss) and Elisha Fitzgibbon, a local blueblood and businessman, who, together with the shrewd Roscoe, make up the Democratic Party triumvirate that wields power in Albany, demand his continued attention. Patsy asks Roscoe to hang around a while longer and then Elisha goes and dies under suspect circumstances, sucking Roscoe back into the vortex of political maneuvering and personal feuds that define his world. As the Republican governor tries to get the goods on the Democratic party leaders and young Alex Fitzgibbon, son of Elisha, returns from the war (he'd volunteered to serve as a private in the infantry) to resume his old seat as Albany's mayor, things really heat up. State troopers are snooping around and trying to bust the shady establishments secretly operated by the Democratic chieftains even as Roscoe must try to avoid the whiff of scandal occasioned by Elisha's untimely demise. For Roscoe this is doubly hard since Elisha's widow is also Roscoe's first and, apparently, only true love. So while trying to figure out the secret behind Elisha's abrupt 'departure' from the world of Albany's living, Roscoe initiates a tentative courtship of the beautiful Veronica, Alex's mother, at the same time. Meanwhile Patsy and his brother Bindy have a falling out over some chickens (they are competitive devotees of cockfighting), which threatens to blow the Albany machine's operations wide open, leaving them prey to the holier-than-thou Republican governor (not mentioned by name but clearly Thomas E. Dewey). We follow Roscoe as he moves about the town meeting various players, trying to tamp down the problems that keep cropping up and to figure an angle that will enable the Democrats to hold onto power in the upcoming election, no matter what. For Roscoe voting fraud, public bluster and misrepresentation are all tools of the trade. And yet Roscoe is an endearing sort, somewhat overweight and clearly overly romantic, he pines for Veronica while he struggles to hold the rapidly unravelling strands of their lives together, even when Roscoe's former wife, Veronica's sister Pamela, returns to try to extort money from her lovely sibling. Could she be the reason Elisha, Veronica's husband and Roscoe's boyhood friend, took the final powder? The novel shows us these events through the somewhat hazy, and possibly less than completely reliable, eyes of the clever but world weary Roscoe as he seeks to retrieve his life in one final chance to do more with it than scheme and manipulate votes in the backrooms of Albany. Enjoyable and sharply written, this book faltered about halfway through but picked up again and carried me through to the end. I was, however, a little disappointed by the denouement but the book, on balance, was plainly worth the read.