PREFACE: I was invited by Don Faulkner of the NYS Writers Institute to introduce William Kennedy at the official Albany launch of his latest novel. The event was held at the Page Theater on October 3rd. The place was packed. Bill’s reading was electric. We retired to the Paradiso Café, where part of “Ironweed’ was filmed, and the real fun began.
While it’s a singular honor for me to introduce this city’s, this state’s, this country’s greatest living writer, let’s be honest. My role here tonight–like Donald Trump’s recent presidential campaign–falls somewhere between the superfluous and the ridiculous. Bill Kennedy needs an introduction in Albany about as much as the Pope needs an introduction in the Vatican.
Maybe the best way to understand my real function is in terms of the opening act in one of those old-style Vaudeville shows that used to be featured down at the Palace Theater. The opener was usually a dog act or a trained seal. Its primary function was to allow the audience to settle in and get ready for the big act.
Since I can’t balance a ball on my nose and since–at least most days–walking on my hind legs is no big deal, I’ll do my best to get the show underway by saying a few painfully obvious things about Bill Kennedy. If I go on a bit too long, forgive me.
There are some things I tend to bring to a climax too quickly. (Just ask my wife.)
Talking about Bill Kennedy isn’t one of them.
To begin, I think I speak for the entire community of American writers when I sum up our reaction to his latest masterpiece, Chango’s Beads and Two-Toned Shoes, in two words:
enough already reminding us of our inadequacies…
enough already raising the bar for literary excellence to impossible heights…
enough already intimidating writers young and old with the majesty of your prose and the profundity of your imaginative genius.
In fact, on finishing Chango’s Beads, I was reminded of Lady Bracknell’s horrified reaction in “The Importance of Being Ernest” on learning that her daughter’s suitor is an orphan. “Losing one parent,” Lady Bracknell announces, “is a tragedy…Losing two is pure carelessness.”
Well, Bill, producing one masterpiece is a triumph. Producing an octo-opus (yes, the pun is intended) is an act of wanton cruelty inflicted on every practicing and aspiring novelist I know. Yet as cowed as I am by Bill’s work, I also feel blessed to have had him as a friend for more than a quarter of a century.
I originally made his acquaintance in 1984, as part of the First Friday Club, a cabal of wanna-be writer, mostly guilt-crippled Irish and Israelites with the odd Italian spiced in, who gathered for a largely liquid lunch in a saloon on Second Avenue on the first Friday of every month. Our routine was based on a devotion popular in the pre-Vatican II era that promised those who attended Mass nine first Fridays in a row would be blessed by the presence of a priest in their final moments.
According to our secular equivalent, the putative benefaction for those attending nine consecutive lunches was to be accompanied in their final moments by a bartender. As it turned out our lunches became increasingly taken up with discussions of the work of one William Kennedy, and since I was a part-time resident of Albany–a galley slave/speechwriter on the ship of state under captains Carey and Cuomo the First–I was assigned to invite him to a First Friday Collation at a time and place of his choosing.
Bill wrote back that, yes, he would meet with us in Albany on January 6th–the feast of the Epiphany–at Lombardo’s, on Madison Avenue, which as any Kennedy fan knows is where Billy Phelan takes Francis, his father, after bailing him out of the cooler when the state police collared him for registering to vote a mere twenty-one times.
Twelve of us–an appropriately apostolic number—made the trek to Lombardo’s that day, a contingent that included the brothers McCourt, Malachy and Frank, the latter still teaching and brooding upon the literary egg that would one day hatch his masterpiece, Angela’s Ashes.
Bill later told me that he thought the First Friday Club was some sort of genteel literary group that would query him for an hour or two about religious symbolism in Ironweed. As it turned out, Bill barely got a chance to talk. He laughed mostly, as we all did, and enjoyed the drink and dueling soliloquies that prevented us from noticing the afternoon of the Epiphany slip into the pinched, pink glint of the frozen Albany twilight.
With Bill presiding, we went on strike against our serious workday selves and enlisted in the frolicsome one-upmanship of storytelling–salacious, slanderous, scatological, theological–an endless melee of poems, jokes and songs. The McCourt brothers put their not-inconsiderable stage skills on display, Ironweed style: “an antisyllable lyric they sang, like the sibilance of the wren’s softest whistle, or the tree frog’s tonsillar wheeze.”
We never ate lunch. I can’t remember if we even ordered it. To the best of my recollection, we wiped out the joint’s supply of Irish whisky. What I do recall with absolute certainty is a mix of fact and subconscious projection, a melding of the corporeal and fictional: living people mingling with the creations born out of Bill’s imagination, imbibing together, dilating and digressing, whistling and wheezing, and discovering once again how, in the hands of a great artist, the line between fact and fiction, myth and reality, can grow thin and disappear.
The word became flesh. And dwelt amongst us.
Marcus Gorman, Albany’s noted communion-breakfast intellectual and mouthpiece for Legs Diamond, sat with us and offered observations with his trademark detachment.
Martin Daugherty, son of Edward and Katrina (she of the flaming corsage) regaled us with stories of his old man, the playwright.
Roscoe Owen Conway descended from the eleventh floor of the State Bank building and handed out absentee ballots–five per customer.
“Does the fact I never really existed disqualify me,” asked Francis Phelan.
“If our Republic is to continue,” Roscoe replied, “then it must include everyone, fictional as well as real. On such principles does our great democracy endure.”
The immediacy of Bill Kennedy’s world–that powerful, irresistible cycle made real in his novels–is an experience shared by all his readers. The cast of characters he has fabled into flesh is so vividly imagined that I, for one, have always found it impossible to believe they live and die only on the page. I don’t believe I’m alone in this. I know others who come to Albany half-expecting to find themselves sitting next to a Phelan or a Quinn.
Finally, let me offer two observations.
First, there’s no single secret to the Kennedy magic. If there were, it would have been distilled and bottled years ago, placed on the shelf between the Jameson’s and Bushmill’s, and writers like myself would be drunk on it every day. Yet, in the several times that I’ve read Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game, I’ve come to gain one insight into the mastery of Bill’s prose.
Billy Phelan’s greatness lies not just in the skill with which he plays, nor the intensity, but in how he plays…in his style. Style is the signature of the soul. It distinguishes great players from mere winners. Winners can only win. The great can win or lose, but always, always with style.
The central importance of style is correctly (if with a tinge of Teutonic arrogance) summarized in Legs by “a young, half-drunk playwright named Weissberg” who is introduced to the eponymous gangster during his brief visit to Weimar Germany to score drugs. Weissberg speaks of his desire to travel to America and study’s Legs’s life, dissect it, and use it as the raw material of his art.
“I want only the opportunity to write what I believe,” Weissberg tells Legs, “which is that there are similarities among the great artist, the great whore, and the great criminal…In all these professions is the willingness to withhold nothing from one’s work. All these, when they achieve greatness, have also an undeniable high style which separates them from the pedestrian mob. For how could we all tell a great criminal from a thug in the alley, or a great whore from a street slut, if it were not for style?”
Legs’s response is to draw his chair close to Weissberg’s, until their knees touch, and fire his pistol in the small space between the playwright’s feet. Weissberg wets his pants. Whether in art or in life, coming face-to-face with a great stylist can do that to you: It can intimidate as well as inspire.
As awed as I’ve been by Bill Kennedy’s style–as moved to tears and laughter and astonishment–I’m proud to say I’ve never wet my pants.
But as John Sayles pointed out in the rave he gave Chango’s Beads in the Times Book Review, you never know what Bill’s next novel will bring…
Here is an artist who can, quote, “play with both hands and improvise…a writer we hope to hear more from.”
Without waiting for the next installment, however, I know enough about the sweep, intensity, vitality, and originality of Bill’s novels to end with this second observation, which is perhaps best phrased as a question.
Very shortly, the Swedish Academy will announce its selection of the 2011 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. The Academy makes its decision with an opacity that would be justice to the inner workings of the Albany County Democratic Committee in the days of Dan O’Connell. But–with some notable exceptions–if the past is any guide, the edge is with some Moldavian poet whose hundred-thousand-line epic verse on the history of animal husbandry in Herzegovina has earned him an audience of Balkan goat herders in the high single digits.
I ask the committee, then:
–Isn’t it time to honor an artist whose fearless eloquence, penetrating humor, and luminous insights infuse every page of his timeless novels?…
–Isn’t it time to recognize a lifetime of literary achievement by a writer whose works plumb and penetrate the particularity of people and place to reveal the truths of our common humanity…a writer whose work has been translated into a score of different languages and transcends borders of region and race?…
–Hasn’t the hour come round at last for the Pooh-Bahs of the Academy to stop their shucking and jiving and present the Nobel Prize for Literature to a writer who’s already regarded in the same category as his countrymen, Eugene O’Neill and Ernest Hemingway?…
the husband of the lovely Dana…
the Bard of Albany…
Behold the man…
EPILOGUE: Two days after this event, the Nobel Prize for Literature Prize was awarded to Tomas Tranströmer, a Swedish poet who, according to the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, writes about “death, history, memory and nature. A lot about nature.” He has “never been a full-time writer as such” and is not a prolific poet: “You could fit all of [his work] into a not-too-large pocket book.”
Kennedy in 2012, sez I.