The kitchen is the soul and focus of any good Irish-American household; William Kennedy's kitchen stands at the intersection of two wings of his large 1844 farmhouse outside Albany; that makes the room dangerous for a cat. Sam, the 15-year-old mongrel giant, found that out when he wandered into the 200-odd-square-foot room. William Kennedy was rummaging through a foot-high stack of mail; his wife, Dana, fretted over delivering him to the Plaza hotel in New York; daughter Dana wandered through on her way upstairs to check out a new copying machine; Kathy Kennedy reviewed catering arrangements with the Albany Hilton for the world premiere of The Cotton Club; and the phones (the family has two numbers) rang approximately six million times, usually for 14-year-old Brendan Kennedy. On a love seat in a side room, two adolescents—distant relatives—watched the tube during intermittent breaks from fairly decorous necking. With all those humans loose in the house, Sam had no chance, and his sharp yelp sent his owner into a litany of atonement. "Oh, Sam, ohhhh," cooed William Kennedy, hefting the overweight bundle of black fur into his arms. "Oh, man, I stepped on your tail. Oh, Sammy. Sorry, buddy. Hey, man, sorry. Oh, that was a tough one. Wow! Here's something to distract you—a little piece of bologna. Sam, anybody that gets their tail stepped on needs two pieces of bologna—immediately."
At the best of times, with three kids, a grandchild, and an ever-shifting cast of friends passing through, the Kennedy farmhouse has never been an oasis of tranquillity. "This has been a great party house," Kennedy reflects. "There's a story in the craziness, the multiplicity of lives that go on here." But this year the craziness has burgeoned, the frenzy exploded as William Kennedy, at 56, has emerged from 30 years of obscurity as a writer to become 1984's undisputed heavyweight champion of the literary world. His Ironweed won the Pulitzer Prize. Over the past two years three earlier novels—neglected when they first appeared—have been republished and launched onto best-seller lists. Francis Ford Coppola recruited him to write the screenplay for Cotton Club, and Hollywood is planning to film his novels Ironweed, Legs and Billy Phelan's Greatest Game. Combine that with the fact that last year he was awarded a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant," and you begin to understand why Kennedy now owns a word processor and a copying machine, pays others to answer his mail and handle his arrangements, has a "say no" letter to help him decline invitations for lecture tours and honorary degrees, and has just bought a house near downtown Albany where he can hide and actually write. "I consider all this a major interruption," he complains. "Right now is the craziest of all possible times."
The great distinction of the work of William Kennedy is that there is an absolutely unsentimental and unsparing writer behind this man in whose home the wine flows freely, friends gather frequently and sing old shmaltzy ballads unashamedly, and even the cat is treated to elaborate and heartfelt sympathy. In his fictional world, good deeds are not automatically rewarded, love is not eternal, and death is frequent, offhand and cruel. He demurs at the suggestion that he is preternaturally unkind to the gangsters, hoboes, has-been and almost-were athletes and would-be entertainers who populate his fiction: "I don't see how you can say that I'm more cruel than God. God is the cruelest cat in town."
He is sitting now in the drawing room of the onetime boardinghouse on Dove Street in Albany where he can shelter himself from the craziness. The wine is a 1982 Châteauneuf-du-Pape. This room is cluttered, homey, its tables stacked with books and magazines, its wall hangings on an Albany theme. Upstairs, in a room furnished with earth-tone couches and a happy plaid carpet, Ironweed's Pulitzer Prize hangs framed on a far wall. The bullet holes that were made in that same wall on the night in 1931 when the gangster Jack "Legs" Diamond was murdered in that very room have long since been plastered over; although Diamond was the subject of his first major book, Kennedy brushes off any attempt to read deep meaning into his purchase of this house. Instead, he talks about his fiction and reveals himself as that rarest of characters—a man who can speak an impromptu lyrical sentence.
"Times have been grievous," he says, as he casts his mind backward to the lean decades. "We've had our share of miscellaneous trouble. But my observations and my characters are not equatable with my own life. People keep asking me now, 'Are you going to write books with happy endings?' My answer to that is no."
No, success is not spoiling William Kennedy. His Brylcreemed, thinning hair, white-on-white shirts and gray plaid suits are the uniform of a man who for decades paid the rent working on a series of newspapers up and down the East Coast and Puerto Rico. If writing Cotton Club has given him a movie star image, then the movie star he resembles is Broderick Crawford. His growling, gravelly voice has lost none of its Albany accent. And though he has bought a snazzy new car with a gadget that talks to him when he turns it on, it is a black Chrysler New Yorker—a vehicle that would look more appropriate in the garage of an Albany bail bondsman than on Rodeo Drive.
"I have a novel that I'm working on now," he says, sipping on his wine, sitting back in his rocker with his right leg hooked over the arm. "I've sold it already; I've got four chapters written. It's called Quinn's Book." Quinn's Book has been coming along more slowly than any other William Kennedy novel. The tours, the movies, the talk shows, the autographs and just the inconvenience of fame are getting in the way. But William Kennedy, newborn celebrity, throws his head back, scrunches his eyes and speaks from his soul. "I have a lot of interference I have to fight off. But I'm going to do it. I'm going to get back to that book. That's where the sanity is."
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