Sunday, March 17, 2002
"That year an ill wind blew over the city and threatened to destroy flowerpots, family fortunes, reputations, true love, and several types of virtue."
So begins "Roscoe" (Viking, 291 pages, $24.95), the seventh in the cycle of novels by William Kennedy, the Pulitzer Prize-winning chronicler of Albany, N.Y.
It has been about five years since Kennedy's previous novel, "The Flaming Corsage," but with "Roscoe," he proves the time well spent.
At the center of this novel, which is at once tragic, comic and heroic, is the politically omnipresent Roscoe Conway. On V-J Day in 1945, Roscoe, who has never held elected office, joins Patsy McCall and Elisha Fitzgibbon to form the "triaxial brain trust" of the Albany Democratic political machine, which has been in power since 1921.
But Roscoe is tiring of politics and yearns to leave the machine. Before he can make his wishes known, however, Elisha ï¿½ husband of Veronica, the love of Roscoe's life and sister of Roscoe's ex-wife Pamela ï¿½ commits suicide and forces Roscoe back into the political playing field.
There it falls to Roscoe, a lawyer by trade if not practice, to defend Veronica against a scandal disguised as a custody battle brought by Pamela. It also becomes his responsibility to quell a dispute between Patsy and his brother Bindy, which is leading to a crackdown on several brothels that have long proved popular and profitable for the machine.
In the midst of all this, Roscoe attempts to rekindle a long-ago love affair with Veronica and provide a father figure to her adopted son Gilby, the child involved in the custody battle.
As Roscoe attempts to navigate his present predicaments, Kennedy provides the novel's backdrop through flashbacks and the fleshing out of stories involving peripheral characters, including the gangster Jack "Legs" Diamond and Jeremiah "Mac" McEvoy, a police officer who plays a major role in the lives of both Diamond and Roscoe.
These remembrances help to build the character of Roscoe, showing his introduction into the political game and helping to explain how he believes being dishonest is often the most honorable thing.
Kennedy has chosen in the honorable scoundrel Roscoe the perfect main character to lead the novel through locales that range from brothels to barrooms, courtrooms and country estates. Roscoe is likable, funny, smart and always entertaining, and his best qualities rub off on the novel.