November 6, 2007

The Quick and the Dead Kennedys

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Last Thursday night was All Saint’s Day, the Catholic holiday partly based on the Celtic feast of Samhain, the turning-point of the harvest year, when the differences between the living and the dead may dissolve away. It was an appropriate date for novelist William Kennedy to give a reading since his most well known, Pulitzer-prize winning piece of fiction, Ironweed, likely begins on this day, as faculty emeriti Lamar Herrin conjectured in his introduction to the reading.
In that magical book, part of Kennedy’s career-spanning cycle of historical novels depicting his hometown, ghosts ramble through Albany haunting the bum Francis Phelan until he makes his peace with both the living and the dead, some of whom he had killed with his own hands.Perhaps Kennedy made his own peace of sorts, too: when he read at Temple of Zeus in 1978 from the manuscript then-called Lemonweed, there were only nine members in the audience. This time around, a full audience packed Hollis auditorium to hear his latest work-in-progress.
Kennedy read first from his most recent novel, Roscoe, about politcos cutting backroom deals in the backwater of post-World War II Albany. Much of the excerpt depicted the rusty Democratic Party’s plans to grease various palms and jerry-rig elections to get their political machine running into well-oiled shape after years of Republican domination.
Too much exposition and local detail weighed down the passage, which may have been the fault of choosing to present the beginning of a long novel. However, near the end of the scene, it picked up its pace when an old political boss exhorts the eponymous hero on how to wrangle up money and votes with a litany of corrupt political techniques, most of which involve tolerating just enough vice in the city so the government can tax the hell out of it. Kennedy’s voice of a cardsharper reached a gravelly crescendo as he ended with the cynical admonitions, “Don’t be afraid to pay for votes. And find out who’s dying or dead. Just because they’re dead doesn’t mean they’re Republicans.” Again, the confusion of living and dead seemed to give him some of his best material.
He then read from an untitled work-in-progress about a doddering amnesiac, George Quinn, who lives in a past that only remains in the mausoleum of his own decaying mind. At first, the character’s constantly repeated phrases and inability to keep a single thought in his head struck one as mildly amusing; but, as the excerpt continued, the joke began to feel as old and haggard as the character it depicted.
While the geriatric, almost zombified protagonist confusedly wanders around downtown Albany looking for dance clubs, barrooms, or bank offices that may have vanished decades earlier, the audience grew impatient to know if the plot was heading anywhere or if it, too, was searching in vain for a direction. Though this may have been intended as a metaphor for the aimlessness and senility that constitutes history itself, it caused the narrative to lag because nothing seemed at stake except an old man’s reminiscences.
That changed when Quinn finally arrives at a pub and asks a “colored fella behind the bar” if he is “N—– Dick Hawkins.” The bartender tells him, no, he’s “N—– George”— causing a further confusion of identities — and is “gonna kick yer ass the fuck outta this bar” cause we “don’t want your business here, motherfucka.” Both characters recoil at the offensiveness of each other’s language; reality finally intrudes on George’s fuzzy, beer-befuddled memory-chamber. The past and present forcefully collide. Likewise, a doubling of identities may have been at work in the historical framing of the unfinished novel at the time of Bobby Kennedy’s assassination. A dead Kennedy may be acting as a surrogate for a living (unrelated) Kennedy; by bringing that era to life, it may give the author a good reason to keep on living in this one. With an eerie chuckle, William Kennedy admitted in the post-reading question-and-answer session of identifying with the intimations of mortality in Phillip’s Roth latest novel, Exit Ghost, in which Roth finally lays the ghostwriter alter ego of his career-long Zuckerman novels to rest.
When Kennedy’s writing became too beholden to historical incident and name-dropping, a rigor mortis set in and slowed the plot; when he allowed the flamboyant characters to come alive with the immediacy of their heart-sores and daily hungers, on the other hand, his fiction gained a vibrant pulse. Fiction, ironically, is one place where there is little confusion between the quick and the dead. Let’s hope that Kennedy lives long enough to give a vigorous ending to his own lifelong cycle of novels.