For my money he’s the finest living writer in America and while there might be some who would dispute that, there are few who would argue that William Kennedy is the dean of Irish-American fiction.
Some of you may be scratching your head but you probably caught the movie version of Kennedy’s book, Ironweed, in which Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson gave their usual impassioned interpretations.
Still a movie rarely capture the complexity and soul of a book, even if the man from Albany himself wrote the screenplay.
Albany, you say, isn’t that the place where those eejits elected to the State Senate do their business? Well, Albany is a lot more than that. It’s a state of mind too, one that’s been plumbed to the depths by Mister Kennedy.
One of the perks of my gig with Black 47 is getting to visit, observe and gradually know many cities throughout the country. Yet, had I just read William Kennedy’s books I could just as well have stayed at home instead of trucking up the thruway to Albany, Troy, Schenectady, Saratoga and all the other towns and villages that make up the Capital Region.
Kennedy’s Albany cycle that also includes Legs (Diamond), Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game, Very Old Bones, and Roscoe has often been mentioned in the same breath as James Joyce’s Ulysses, no small potatoes for any writer.
Yet, in an odd way, Kennedy goes one better, for if Joyce tosses us heart and soul into a claustrophobic Dublin of 1904, the Albany man introduces us to an Irish society ever metamorphosing, because of the pressures exerted on it by a powerful and long established Dutch and WASP political and social culture.
Although I’ve never met him, one gets the distinct feeling that Kennedy has been touched by a certain amount of failure and personal trial; either that or he’s someone who has an inherent understanding of flawed humanity in all its teeming splendor. For his characters are so very believable - not the least when they are pinned to a wall with doubt, heart-scald or an existential lack of trust in themselves.
And yet, they are never depressing; rarely give up hope and are always on the lookout for redemption.
I was once late at night in a bums’ bar on the Bowery, back when such places flourished. I was standing next to a wreck of a man who looked in his 70’s, though he was probably less than 60.
Like me, he was listening to the mumbled conversations of the wretches around him. Suddenly, he slammed down his glass.
“Look at them!” He motioned dismissively. “At least, I was in the arena. I was once someone.”
His tattered sense of superiority was all he had left and we both knew it.
I thought of that man when reading about Francis Phelan in Ironweed. I thought of Eugene O’Neill too. The great playwright felt that he could thoroughly explore the vast landscape of the human condition through a series of plays about his family.
Kennedy achieves some of that in his study of the extended Phelan clan. But he also manages to introduce a very Irish fascination with the supernatural and a sense of certainty that the dead continue to exert a tactile control over the living.
William Kennedy will be linked with the playwright in a more formal way on Oct. 16th when he receives the first Eugene O’Neill Lifetime Achievement award given by the Irish-American Writers and Artists at Rosie O’Grady’s Manhattan Club in New York City. For more information go to www.oneillaward.org.
Actors Matt Dillon, and Michael O’Keefe who played Billy Phelan in Ironweed, director John Patrick Shanley, and writer Malachy McCourt will be on hand when New York Times journalist, Dan Barry, presents Kennedy with his much deserved honor.
Barring an ambush by Congressman Joe Wilson or a win at Powerball, I’ll be there. Maybe I’ll see you. But if not, Kennedy’s rich universe is available for the price of a paperback or a trip to your local library.
Like Ulysses, you don’t have to start at the beginning; take whichever of the seven books that comes to hand. You’ll touch and be touched by an essential part of the Irish-American experience courtesy of a master craftsman in his compelling Albany Cycle.