Robert Edric

A world of drivers and passengers

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William Kennedy

Simon & Schuster, pp. 375, £

VJ night, the war in the Pacific is finally over, and in William Kennedy's Albany the war of senatorial election is about to begin. The candidates stand up to be counted and the consequences of their election are considered.

Small crooks fresh out of crook school and the army rise into the lower reaches of these considerations. Bigger crooks and politicians start to circle each other and to watch their backs. And the biggest and most battle-scarred crooks of all (politicians to a man) - chief among whom resides Roscoe Conway - sit with their open wallets on their desks, old hunting trophies high on the walls of their offices, with their cigar-stuffed and ring-stiffened fingers clasped across their long-lunch paunches, and with the sounds of screaming, pleading, laughter and rapid gunshots conveniently far enough off-stage for them not necessarily to have to be heard. Or for them to be heard and taken note of depending on who is doing the pleading and the screaming and who is doing the laughing and the shooting.

Welcome to the seventh roller-coaster ride through the world of William Kennedy's Albany. For admirers of this world - 25 years and counting, and including the Pulitzer-winning Ironweed - this is a town and a people who will need no introduction. No one here is ever what they seem; there are no conventionally good or bad men or women, just crooks, politicians and honest citizens with appetites they strive to feed, and with flaws to which they all too willingly succumb. As Roscoe himself puts it: a world of drivers and passengers, of dreaming schemers and scheming dreamers without even a thinly drawn line between them to tell them apart.

But Roscoe, though still driven by his 'rage for duty', is an ailing man - his heart is bleeding - and this may be his last chance to be a player in the world he has helped to create. He struts and seduces, eats, bribes, drinks and threatens, juggling the long-resisted affair with the wife of a recently dead friend, the election of her soldier-hero son, and the defence of an increasingly frustrating paternity suit in court.

As in all of Kennedy's novels in this magnificent and magisterial cycle, there is both complexity and simplicity here: complexity in the way Kennedy and Roscoe move back and forth through a vast array of characters, through time and a slowly unravelling tangle of old allegiances and enmities towards uncertain goals; and simplicity in the way Kennedy guides us through this small, imploding world through the eyes of a single, unmissable character. Roscoe Conway will surely come to rate as one of Kennedy's greatest creations amid a host of equally memorable others.

Story-telling and its attendant tatters of fact, real people and wholly fictional creations walk side by side in Albany. Some cast bigger shadows than others, some shine brighter lights than others into its murky, corpse-strewn corners. Just as Roscoe professes to favour a living lie over a dead truth, so the seams of Kennedy's Albany and the reality in which it is founded remain forever invisible.

As election day approaches, and as the pleading, dealing and gunshots increase in pace and intensity, Roscoe is drawn more and more to the past: to earlier elections and his role in them; to his adventures during prohibition; to the mis-understood heroics of his own wartime experiences, and, most importantly, to the woman he lost, but whom he never stopped loving, and who loves him in return and is once again available to him.

A kind of calm is settling over Roscoe, just as an uncertain peace is establishing itself throughout the world, and amid all these rambunctious shenanigans of his final power play he understands that he is a spent force, that a new age has dawned, and that with it men more greedy and more vicious than he ever was are gathering to play their own part in the destruction of America's postwar democratic dream.

William Kennedy is pre-eminent among his generation of writers (and, yes, that is a grand and contestable claim). His old world is the world of Damon Runyan, Frank Norris and Nathanael West; in his new world live Barry Gifford, T. Coraghessan Boyle, Peter Dexter and Scott Bradshaw. Kennedy is peerless in the depth and acuity of his sustained vision, and the lost, past world of Albany says more to us today about the current state, about the heart and soul, of American politics than any recent bestselling, Hollywood- pandering political thriller has ever done.