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book reviews

‘Roscoe’ by William Kennedy and ‘All the King’s Men’ by Robert Penn Warren

My Fellow Americans:

It’s time for a change.

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In the past few weeks I’ve traveled across this great country of ours, talking to ordinary folks, folks like you and me, folks who desperately want a new American political novel for the 2012 American political season.

When I say a “new” American political novel, I don’t mean “just published”; no, I mean a novel published more recently than Robert Penn Warren’s 1946 book “All the King’s Men,” which has been considered for so long the best American novel about politics that it’s in danger of seeming not like the President of American Political Novels but rather the King of American Political Novels. As everyone knows, we do not do kings in this country. In fact, when I pointed out to Ida Jaffrey, a self-employed seamstress from Boonville, N.Y., that “All the King’s Men” had become the de facto King of American Political Novels, Mrs. Jaffrey said, “De facto?” And also, “We do not do kings in this country.”

So, let me be the first to declare: The King is Dead! Long Live the . . .

And that is the question I’ve put to so many of you over the past several weeks: What do we want in our new American political novel? Donnie Rafael, a longshoreman from Long Beach, Calif., said that he wanted a novel with a sense of humor, and when I asked a sense of humor about what, he responded, “Everything.”

Rachel Ples-Green, a credit-card account manager from Twin Bluffs, S.D., argued that we needed a novel that made politicians much less boring than most of them in real life want to appear, or actually are.

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Tim Pleschette, a potato farmer from Madawaska, Maine, suggested that we needed a novel that loves its corrupt, venal politicians even as it shows that their corruption and venality is at least as destructive as these individuals are entertaining.

Lu “Lucy’’ Park, a retired public school guidance counselor from Topeka, Kan., demanded a novel that gave us not pieties about melting pots, etc., but rather an honest, brutal look at how politics i has often been controlled and manipulated by clans bound by religion, region, race.

And Joseph Biden, a politician from Washington, D.C., and also Wilmington, Del., and Scranton, Pa., claimed that he wanted a novel featuring a man of experience, a man of appetites, a ridiculous man who somehow in not recognizing he was a ridiculous man while at the same time somehow not taking himself too seriously was somehow better or at any rate more interesting than all those other politicians who were more ridiculous for acting as though they were not. “It sounds like you want a novel about Joe Biden,” I said, and he laughed that laugh — you know the laugh — and then grew thoughtful and said, “Or Roscoe Conway, the titular hero of William Kennedy’s great 2002 novel ‘Roscoe.’ ”

Vice President Biden is right: William Kennedy’s great 2002 novel “Roscoe” is the new American political novel you’ve been waiting for, even though Conway is not a politician proper, but rather a lawyer and fixer for the Democratic political clans that rule Kennedy’s Albany, N.Y., throughout the first half of the 20th century.

Roscoe is a wonderful Falstaffian character who drinks and eats too much; who covets his best friend’s wife, and also his best friend’s wife’s sister; and who is somehow both a cynic and a dreamer, an opportunist and a romantic. In Kennedy’s hands, and through Roscoe’s eyes, we see a world of politics and citizenship that is somehow both uglier and more beautiful than the world in which we live. A world about which Roscoe’s father, after being caught in a voting scandal, says, “People say voting the dead is immoral, but what the hell, if they were alive they’d all be Democrats. Just because they’re dead don’t mean they’re Republicans.” The reader can hear the pleasure in that sentence, in that corrupt logic.

The corruption brings with it plenty of pain as the hero in “Roscoe” tries to keep the Democrats in power while also trying to figure out why his friends, his world, his body are falling apart, but joy is always there to keep the pain company. What more can we want in a political novel, in any kind of novel? William Kennedy — one of our greatest living novelists — has been writing these kinds of novels for 40-plus years. Which is why I say, Long live William Kennedy! Long live Roscoe! May we listen to him as closely as he has listened to us.

Brock Clarke, the author of “Exley,’’ teaches at Bowdoin College. He can be reached at brockwayclarke@yahoo.com.

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