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

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.

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.''

Kennedy, who bears the blunt, red-haired traces of his Irish-American heritage, initially channeled his enthusiasm for his old haunts into the nonfictional, ``O, Albany!'' In that book, written after months, years of library research, Kennedy describes Albany as a city rich in metaphysical rather than physical charms: ``political ambition,'' ``greed,'' ``a tangible fear of the Lord'' and its ``mythic qualities.''

For the next 20 years Kennedy researched and wrote in near obscurity - and near poverty - turning the city's history, its Tammany Hall tales and Irish immigrant gang wars, its crooks and gamblers, its high rollers and street bums into the stuff of fiction that was by turns gritty and lyrical. If critics found the diamonds glinting in the coal dust, readers did not. After lackluster sales of his first books, Kennedy's publishers were less than eager to publish the Depression-era ``Ironweed.''

But Kennedy's historian's zeal and reporter's nose for detail never flagged. ``I had grown up during the Hearst empire and the whole Damon Runyon myth,'' he says. ``And I always wanted to be a journalist in the '20s and '30s, because of the language.... Then when I returned home in the '60s I realized it wasn't going to be possible to write the one book I wanted to write; I had too much material ... I began instead to chop up the history into manageable blocks of time.''

The first of those blocks was ``The Ink Truck,'' set in the 1960s about an ill-fated strike against a newspaper. Then came ``Legs,'' Kennedy's part-fact, part-fictionalized account of Legs Diamond, the infamous New York gambler whose Albany townhouse Kennedy now owns. Introducing the Phelan family

Three years later: ``Billy Phelan's Greatest Game,'' based on an acutal 1933 kidnapping of the son of an Albany politician. The book also introduced the Phelan family, the forebears of Francis Phelan, the down-and-out protagonist of ``Ironweed,'' who was portrayed in the film by Jack Nicholson.

In ``Quinn's Book,'' the family threads draw even closer together. ``Quinn is the grandfather of Billy Phelan and forefather of the Quinns of `Ironweed,''' Kennedy says. ``So it's a whole cycle of novels about Albany, not a trilogy. The stories are just evolving backward. I'm still tracking the trajectory of the city and the country.''

Although Kennedy says he originally attempted to give the book a quasi-contemporary frame by setting it in the mid-1950s, he found the writing ``cutting too close to the bone.''

Again, it is the tangible sense of history that Kennedy, ironically, finds most freeing as a writer.``There is a pluperfect quality to history; certain boundaries that can't be contravened or reinvented like the present can be. That is liberating to me,'' he says.

Excerpt from `Quinn's Book'

Poor Quinn. Consider him. He saves a life, discovers love, finds it reciprocated, is obsessed and rightly so, alters his life to yield to his obsession, finds worlds beyond worlds that he cannot understand, finds the object of his obsession to be madcap, takes her home, kisses her, all but swoons with confounded desire, goes to his rooming house, fails to sleep, rises, lights his writing lamp, plucks from his writing case his pointless pen, finds a point, imposes it on the pen, unrolls his paper, uncaps his inkwell, poises his pen above the well with the intention of wetting the point and writing, refrains from dipping because his condition allows no clarity of thought, puts down the pen, paces up and down in his bedchamber, takes up his collection of Montaigne's essays, opens it, and finds two passages underlined: ``What causes do we not invent for the misfortunes that befall us? What will we not blame, rightly or wrongly, that we may have something to fight with?'' and also this: ``And we see that the soul in its passions is wont to cheat itself by setting up a false and fanciful object, even against its own belief, rather than not have something to act upon,'' and piqued by this, turns back to the beginning of the essay, which is called ``How the Soul Relieves Its Feelings on the Wrong Objects, When the Real Are Wanting,'' reads it through, then resumes his pacing, considering the current state of love, of men and women, of his life past and future, wondering what will become of himself, a novice in all things, now that he is lost to love and probably about to set out in several wrong directions,...

Quinn's mood elevated once he discovered his control over the word. He envisioned a thrilling future for himself, sitting alone in hotel rooms, ruminating on epic events, then imposing his conclusions on paper for the world to read in the morning newspaper. He felt a surge of power and also vague intimations of wealth.

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