O ALBANY! by William Kennedy


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Two dozen or so essay/report/meditations on the people, politics, and neighborhood-histories of New York State's much-maligned capital--from the native son who has celebrated some of Albany's seedy charms in such novels as Billy Phelan's Greatest Game and Ironweed. ""Even at its most dismal, wretched, and cloacal moments,"" writes Kennedy, this city has ""grace and greatness""; moreover, it's ""as various as the American psyche itself."" He begins with autobiographical sketches of childhood: discovering books at the Pruyn Library (a haven for Depression vagrants); evoking a 1930s North Albany morning in a 20-page paragraph of dense free-association. Then come past/present musings with maps, on eight Albany neighborhoods--from crime-haunted Delaware Ave. to Arbor Hill (""a place of Arcadian wealth, gentility, and beauty that became a slum""); from upper/middle Pine Hills to the machine-shops of West Albany and the Bowery, a once-booming saloon center that once again, after decline, may be ""a street with a future."" Despite some interviews with old-timers, however, only one of the neighborhoods really comes alive here: ""The Gut,"" a now-abandoned Tenderloin area that vividly emerges in talks with 1960s prostitutes--and with Olivia Rorie, a 350-pound black woman who labored for neighborhood-improvement in the 1970s. History dominates in the next sections: Kennedy's research (for the novel Legs) into the death of gangster Legs Diamond; glimpses of gambling in the Thirties, Prohibition in the Twenties (with ""civic cooperation"" between bootleggers and the police); short chronicles of ethnic groups in Albany--with more distinctiveness in the small black community than in the generally familiar progress of Jews, Germans, and Italians. But the final 100 pages focus in, rewardingly, on Albany's notorious politics. Kennedy, in two pieces, celebrates the admittedly tainted greatness of Democratic Party power-broker Dan O'Connell, ""Jesus Christ in baggy pants and a brown three-inch-brim fedora""--with wry acceptance of the party Machine's padded payrolls, election manipulations, and collusion with the ""night world"" of vice. (""Why didn't the people of Albany ever rise up against the Machine?. . . Politics was justice in the form of benevolence from Dan's poke, and probably two or three city jobs somewhere in the family."") There's an inevitable discussion of Nelson Rockefeller's terrible/wonderful Mall--built ""because he had to drive Queen Juliana of the Netherlands through the slumminess and decrepitude of Albany's South End in order to reach the executive mansion."" And the appropriate finale is the career of 40-year mayor Erastus Corning--who could have been a playboy but, driven by ""a passion to play the game"" of politics, repressed his intelligence and slogged ""through four decades of trivia."" Without the sustained lyrical power of Kennedy's novels: of primarily local interest--but intermittently achieving a broader fascination, especially when those politicos come to the fore.

Pub Date: Dec. 1st, 1983
Publisher: Viking