You can do all the navel-gazing you want and until it's centered on a place, it seems to me that it's a vagrant pursuit, a Sunday afternoon in the park or with the soap operas. . . . If you don't have the place, you don't have the dynamics of the society that exists in that place.
-- William Kennedy
RIDING THE YELLOW TROLLEY CAR:
By William Kennedy
494 pages, $25
FOR WILLIAM Kennedy the place is Albany, which he loves as Aeneas loved Rome. The time is the sweep of years from the early '30s to the present. And the magic carpet, which beams him back on his flights of nostalgic recall, is the yellow trolley car that he may or may not have seen on a "street in Barcelona in 1972 when I was there to interview Gabriel Garcia Marquez." (However, it appears that the last trolley in Barcelona had been burned in a public ceremony two years before. So it must have been a ghost trolley.)
For those lucky mortals who lived in the four decades that preceded World War II, the trolley car is as nostalgic a vehicle as the stagecoach. In Buffalo the trolleys were painted green, not yellow. I rode the 9 route mainly; and how those resourceful charioteers, their motormen, made them rocket through the dark winter nights, blue sparks overhead where the contact pole touched the wire, golden sparks below from the wheels, bells clanging at cross streets, De Quincey's glory of motion in homely guise.
That trolley car also symbolizes the "magic realism" of the Latin American novel, which Kennedy explores in 12 of the 76 rides he takes us on in this informal autobiography of a crack journalist's mind and sensibility. "In Mexico," Marquez told him, "surrealism runs through the streets. Surrealism comes from the reality of Latin America."
Kennedy, whose cycle of Albany novels is centered around an Irish-American family -- his own, transformed but not transfigured by art -- here defines an Irishman in words borrowed from a friend who spoke as they were sitting in Greenwich Village's Lion's Head: "You know, Irishmen are people who sit around trying to say things good."
One of the things Kennedy "says things good" about is the American press. As a young writer he worked for the Glen Falls Post-Star, the Albany Times-Union and Army newspapers in Georgia and Germany. Praising the past in this context, he writes:
Buying tomorrow morning's newspaper from an aging paperboy in an all-night coffee joint at 2 a.m. is a mystical experience to which no television news addict can ever attain.
Afterward, for his novels, Kennedy won the National Book Critics Award, a MacArthur Foundation award and the Pulitzer Prize. Peter Quinn, in a long, perceptive interview, reprinted here, explored with him the nature of his work. When Quinn, inevitably, touched upon Ireland, Kennedy pointed out that, from Albany, Ireland was a foreign country, and that the Irish-American experience was definitely not the Irish experience.
All the same, of the several papers here that touch on Ireland and the Irish, one has become a classic: "A Week With the Herbivorous Joyceans," a risible and very acute account of the Fourth International James Joyce Symposium, held in Dublin in 1973. It contains, among other Jack Horner plums for Joyceans, two sentences that should highly amuse Canisius College alumni of that period. For they preserve in amber the name of the late Rev. William Noon, S.J., a member of Canisius' English department in the '50s and '60s:
Out on the sidewalk I met two delegates to the symposium, one named Knight, another named Day. Someone immediately wondered if Father Noon was attending this year, and we were off on the punnyride.
Of the many essays and reviews included in this unassuming inner odyssey of a valuable life spent in newspapers, periodical writing and the fashioning of novels, some stand out above the others. Those on Saul Bellow and Damon Runyon, for example, the opposite poles of Kennedy's graph of admiration. On Malamud, Beckett, Frank Sullivan, Benedict Kiely, John O'Hara, Ionesco. I think he mugs Malcolm Muggeridge a bit too strenuously. But then, every critic must be allowed a private gripe; and Kennedy has very few of these.
He is extremely reticent about his personal life, beyond a few affectionate references to his family and to his wife, Dana, whom he married 36 years ago, a beautiful Latin American dancer from Puerto Rico. But he has one touching and very revelatory half-paragraph about his Weltanschauung. He looks at the world and the infinite through the lenses of his ancestral Catholic theology:
Maybe it's a palliative. Maybe it's one of the great lollipops of history. At the same time, it's beautiful. It's as good as I could see on the horizon -- I don't need Buddhism or Zoroastrianism -- I've got Sacred Heart Church in North Albany.
On popular and high culture, Kennedy pays tribute to Frank Sinatra, Satchmo, Jiggs and Maggie, Cassius Clay, the Cotton Club, Paul McCartney, Pablo Casals. His quiet wit stands out in the one-liners the lyricism and objectivity of his novels make no provision for. I like these:
Nobody in our set ever goes to the beach in the real tropics unless they are an alligator.
Valentino knew what made women sigh, but Bogart knew what made them tick.
And commenting on the carvings of the balustrade in the Capitol Building in Albany and on how their Darwinian chronicle of man's ascent was broken off because of the carvers' fundamentalism:
"So evolution, said the guide, now ends with the elephant."