William Kennedy

I’ve been re-reading my city’s great chronicler, William Kennedy, who is hard at work on both a play and a new novel. He’s 92, but still raring to fill in the spaces he has found in his life’s work.

Kennedy, a former Albany Times Union journalist, first gained fame with his fourth book, Ironweed. The tale of a battered, self-destructive drunk, the novel succeeded – and won a Pulitzer Prize – where the movie starring Jack Nicholson failed. It’s a demonstration of empathy at its deepest, finding motivation, self-consciousness, and remorse where most of us assume a blank slate at best.

The other five books in what’s become known as Kennedy’s Albany Cycle explore relatives of Frances Phelan and his family, acquaintances, half-witnessed events, and the ways in which history gets formed. Together, the work weaves through time to focus on different neighborhoods in our state’s capitol, balances folk tales and mythology with dreams, aspirations, and the machinations of politics in a political town. Individual novels sometimes feel lesser than others until one starts to remember bits and pieces from all that serve to deepen the entire opus with the sorts of memories and effects only an experientially remembered past can.

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Kennedy is a master at dialogue, telling descriptions of people and places. But he has also maintained a pitch-perfect amalgamation of hundreds of fictional characters and events through a project that’s taken him 40-plus years to date. If ever a modern author and body of work deserved a Nobel Prize, his creation is definitely on a par with Faulkner’s, or Kennedy’s revered James Joyce.

In the work I’m just finishing for a second time, Very Old Bones, the author describes the brother of Ironweed’s protagonist at a point where he’s gained critical success with a series of narrative paintings that capture the tragedies in his family’s lineage. It works like a description of Kennedy’s own achievement.

“He had not expected the professional and financial success that was now coming to him at such a late hour. But it happened that a few perspicacious gallery owners and museum people began to see that his work, despite the varied modes and genres in which he had painted and drawn, had about it a prevailing quality that now seemed to be singular,” he writes. “Now they saw an artist who had vaulted beyond his matrix, fused the surreal, the natural, the abstract, and the figurative, and produced an oeuvre that was as cumulatively coherent as his motivation had been in creating the work.”

That this oeuvre stretches from the early nineteenth century to the day Bobby Kennedy was shot, over eight books, is laudable. That it incorporates so much of the human experience, includes so much sterling writing, and manages to refresh itself novel by novel to make up for previous lapses of vision and acuity, is truly rare.

Even better, it enlivens my new home city and makes me proud to be an Albanian living in Bill Kennedy’s aura. I await his next.