Because Kennedy is obsessed with change, with the passing of great eras—Ozymandias is forcefully invoked in his farewell to Union Station—the structures he describes are, in their ability to accumulate history, to become vulnerable, and to pass away, every bit as human and sympathetic as the people who inhabit this history. They also serve as an oblique warning. The completion of the imposing South Mall (now generally known as Empire State Plaza) in the 1970s, a boondoggle Kennedy describes in “Everything Everybody Ever Wanted,” leveled an entire neighborhood and transformed much of Albany’s downtown into a featureless concrete office park. The old Albany gave birth to colorful, larger-than-life men like O’Connell and Corning. The coldly functional, Modernist expanse of Empire State Plaza incubates dull bureaucrats and grim-faced clock-watchers. Though he never says it outright, Kennedy seems to believe not that a city gets the buildings it deserves, but, funny as it sounds, that buildings produce the people they deserve.
By the time O Albany! appeared in 1983, Kennedy had already written four novels, The Ink Truck, Legs, Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game, and Ironweed. He has written five novels since then—his most recent, Changó’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes, an astonishing late-life critical success. Not one of these could have been written absent Kennedy’s lifelong project of getting to know the city he once despised. Many of the real people described in O Albany! resurface, wearing disguises and assumed names, in Kennedy’s novels. Yet it is a missed opportunity to treat O Albany! as a guidebook to the fiction. One wants to compare it to the New York chronicles of Joseph Mitchell, but Kennedy’s task was more difficult than Mitchell’s. He had to make us care about a place most could live without. If O Albany! is a guide to a mostly vanished place, it is also a blueprint for how other fallen, forgotten cities might be reinvigorated by the right kind of attention. It may be fascinating to view the “ruin porn” of places like Detroit, but it is anything but inspirational.
A book cannot save a city, but it can prove that a city is worth saving. It would be a fine thing if more writers and observers shared Kennedy’s magnetic attraction to home and his ability to transfigure it. It is easy, if one has talent, to ride it out of town and to laugh at those unlucky peasants left behind. Yet often one is forfeiting an incredible inheritance, a wealth of history and poetry unknown to outsiders. Ironweed’s Francis Phelan is a man tormented by ghosts of Albany past; he is doomed to wander Albany, despite himself. Phelan’s creator, however, collected ghosts as boon companions, and learned everything they had to tell. This is how a writer should honor his birthplace—by giving life and voice to the dead, for their good and for all of ours.