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A decades-long overnight success story. Interview with William Kennedy

By Hilary DeVriesStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 1, 1988



New York

IT is the stuff of literary history. Or at least legendary gossip about New York publishers. All of it duly recorded via ``Sixty Minutes.'' The 13 rejection slips for the fourth novel - the first three already out of print. That is, until Nobel laureate Saul Bellow gave New York publishers a tongue-lashing that shamed the original house, Viking, into giving the book the green light and - more important - getting behind it.

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That's the tale behind William Kennedy's ``Ironweed,'' a novel whose publication earned for its then-unknown author all the right notices: the Pulitzer Prize, a MacArthur ``genius'' grant, the big-budget movie adaptation.

Unique literary territory

It was the kind of transformation - the decades-long overnight success story - seen in the careers of Anne Tyler, D.M. Thomas, and John Irving, among others. After 30-plus years, Kennedy was not only in good company, he was in the big leagues. And he'd done it with unique - or at least overlooked - literary territory: Albany, N.Y. With the reissuing of his earlier books, ``Legs'' and ``Billy Phelan's Greatest Game,'' the historical trilogy of his hometown was complete and Kennedy was no longer the local starving writer but the de facto Bard of Albany.

``Well, I'm glad success has come now, rather than later,'' notes a wry Kennedy, enjoying some of the fruits of that long-in-coming success in his fireplaced suite in New York's Plaza Hotel. It is five years since the literary hosannas were first voiced, plus all the Hollywood hoopla. (Kennedy wrote the film version of ``Ironweed'' and a draft for Francis Coppola's fiasco, ``The Cotton Club.'')

Now, Kennedy has just weighed in with his first post-Ironweed work: ``Quinn's Book,'' a myth-laden, picaresque romp through 19th-century Albany that, despite the familiar geography, lies outside the author's usual historical realism canon, a departure that is proving problematic for critics.

Some head-scratching, too

If the New York Times Book Review lauded Kennedy (on its coveted front page) as ``unparalleled among his contemporaries ... as a writer of historical fiction,'' other reviewers have done some public head-scratching, calling the mystical ``Quinn's Book'' full of ``intolerably baroque excess'' and ``make-work busyness.''

Kennedy is undeterred by such critical caballing. ``I've always written this kind of book,'' he says. ``You can no more leave out myth than you can leave out a sense of place. Myth is that dream element of both literature and life.'' The book is a coming-of-age novel of one Daniel Quinn, ``neither the first nor the last of a line of such Quinns'' - a first-person account of this cholera orphan who, in the course of becoming a Hearst-style reporter, witnesses some of the most vertiginous American history: the Civil War, Irish-immigrant gang wars, floods, fires, murders, and other mayhem including the races at Saratoga and itinerant theater performances. The book's wooly events, recorded in a rococo style reminscent of 19th-century melodrama, is Kennedy's attempt to mesh the lives of his characters with the soul of emerging America.

As Quinn says, ``The message emerging from my febrile imagination during those tumultuous days was a single word: `linkage'; and from the moment I was able to read that word I became a man compelled to fuse disparate elements of this life, however improbable the joining ...''

Such linkage of past and present, myth and place, has long been Kennedy's concern. ``Without a sense of place, you don't, as a writer, have very much,'' he says. ``Place is all those forces of a given society impinging upon and determining character. Without it, a book becomes bloodless.''

It is the kind of lesson Kennedy learned by experience. His first novel, written during his journalism years in Puerto Rico (he was an editor at the Puerto Rico Star), Kennedy says ``was about a fake city. I hated it and everyone else hated it.'' With Bellow's encouragement (the Noble laureate was a visiting lecturer in San Juan who took Kennedy as an occasional student), Kennedy focused his literary attentions on the actual world. But it wasn't until Kennedy returned home to Albany in the early 1960s that he found the catalyst for his work.

``I'd lived there so long that when I left it was with a real longing for the exotic,'' says Kennedy, who grew up, the only child of a local sheriff (and later an accountant) in Albany's isolated North End, an Irish-Catholic-Democratic neighborhood. ``But when I went back 10 years later, it was magical, the old neighborhood, discovering my roots, the connections between families. It was a revelation.''