Roscoe is the seventh novel in Kennedy's "Albany" cycle, the most notable other book of which is the excellent Ironweed, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize. It's the only other book by Kennedy I've read, but I liked it well enough to want to pick up the new one, and for the most part am glad I did.
Ironweed is one of those rare novels that translated well to the Big Screen—I thought the adaptation, with Jack Nicholson, Meryl Streep, and Tom Waits was terrific. Much of the reason why is perhaps that Kennedy is among the most "cinematic" of "literary" novelists, a quality in evidence with the present book, too—in a way that somehow reminds me of D.H. Lawrence, Kennedy is capable of vivid lyrical flights which never detract from an otherwise conventional narrative, and which evoke an overtly visual panoramic landscape. As in Ironweed, Kennedy weaves the surreal in with the realism of the prose, creating a convincing and often brilliant effect where the reader is able to step into the actual consciousness of a character—"hearing" dead people "speak," for example—without missing a beat of the forward motion of the plot.
But that is where the novel becomes a little weighty. Much of the motion of the book is slow and cumbersome, and at times a bit predictable, as we enter the lives of a post-W.W.II Albany small-time politician and his world of other politicians, complete with the lack of character one might expect from such characters.
Not that we're supposed to especially like Roscoe, the man, but one never really gets a very clear sense of him or of any of the many other characters in this novel. It's easy to say that this is because Kennedy is suggesting that there's not much to them, but I don't buy the imitative fallacy. We're introduced, mid-stream, to such a plethora of people and their lineages in a mere 291 pages that all the characters, even the principals, are drawn far too thinly to sustain a narrative about events that are less disagreeable than rather tedious and boring. Perhaps I'm missing something because I haven't read all seven books of the cycle, but a novel should stand on its own.
Vivid, lyrical writers like Kennedy, and at times Lawrence, seem to often fall into this predicament. Kennedy is often wryly funny in a way Lawrence never was, but he seems to want to create a microcosm of America a bit . . . obviously, a bit too much.
But the actual writing, save for some episodes of forgettable dialogue, soars. At his best, Kennedy is spectacular, a surreal prose-poem stylist who's worth reading simply for the tightness of the imagery and the energy that bursts out of his sentences like atoms splitting in the middle of a consonant. There is no American fiction writer alive who can come close to William Kennedy in this aspect of his prose.
Which is why Roscoe is finally a success. The prose itself creates a narrative of its own, and makes me wonder if conventional standards of character and narrative should even be held to apply to such a vigorous, fresh way of telling a story.