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Roscoe Reader’s Guide

By William Kennedy

Roscoe by William Kennedy


Questions and Topics for Discussion


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).


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.


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.

  • Roscoe Conway, the title character of William Kennedy’s novel, wields enormous political power. Nevertheless, he seems almost helpless at times as he struggles with events and circumstances—romance, health, the indiscretions of friends—that he cannot hope to control. What does Kennedy’s novel suggest about the limitations and illusions of power?
  • In what ways does the cockfight in the first half of the novel serve as a metaphor for Roscoe’s personal battles and for the conditions under which he feels forced to live?
  • Roscoe lives in a self-consciously masculine world. However, his most spectacular triumph in the novel comes at the expense of a woman, his ex-wife Pamela. Does Roscoe rely on different weapons when his adversary is a woman, and how does his adroitness with these tools compare with his skills in the conventions of “masculine” response?
  • Kennedy marks the main divisions of his novel with surreal, page-long sketches whose appearance on the page vaguely recalls that of tombstones. What purposes are served by these sketches? What do they contribute to the understanding of Roscoe’s character or to the story as a whole?
  • Despite the amoral nature of Roscoe’s political life, he is not without his principles. What are Roscoe’s ethics, and does he succeed in remaining true to them?
  • Some of Roscoe’s most tender interactions in the novel involve Elisha’s widow Veronica and her adopted son Gilby. What are the similarities and differences in the ways Roscoe expresses affection for these two characters?
  • Rosoce tells his friends that he is a fraud and a traitor. Do these apparent confessions of moral failing accurately reflect Roscoe’s opinion of himself, or are they just another layer of the deceptions by which he lives? What does Roscoe really think of himself?
  • Aptly named, Roscoe Conway makes his way through life via the art of the con. Through his habitual lies, he appears in a sense to have passed beyond the confines of truth and falsehood into an amoral universe where truth is just another mode of expression. Yet has truth actually lost its hold on Roscoe? Are there facts of existence that even he cannot artfully deny?
  • Central to Roscoe are issues dealing with fathers and sons: Felix Conway’s influence on Roscoe; the questions surrounding the paternity of Gilby; and Roscoe’s attempts to become Gilby’s surrogate father. What is Kennedy’s thinking about fatherhood, and how does it square with yours?
  • Despite occasionally sobering subject matter, Roscoe is a richly humorous novel. Examine some of the novel’s funny passages. How does Kennedy use language and plot situations to produce humorous effects?
  • How do memories and experiences of war affect the characters in Kennedy’s novel? Why do they influence Roscoe and Alex so differently?
  • Roscoe endures both physical and metaphorical wounds to his heart throughout the novel. How does the concept of the heart function symbolically in Roscoe?
  • Alex rejects Roscoe at the end of the novel, and he does so with the absolute conviction that he is doing the right thing. What reasons support his judgment? Does he make the right choice?
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