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Novelist William Kennedy draws full house

William Kennedy holds no grudges. He returned to Cornell Nov. 1 to give the fifth James McConkey Reading in American Fiction to a large and appreciative audience, in sharp contrast to his first visit to campus.

Introducing him, Lamar Herrin, professor emeritus of English, said, "I'm a little surprised that Bill Kennedy agreed to come read here tonight. The first time he was invited was I believe in 1978, and he and his wife, Dana, braved a snowstorm to drive all the way from Albany to read before an audience of nine in the old Temple of Zeus."

On that visit Kennedy read from his new novel, "Billy Phelan's Greatest Game," and showed some faculty members a manuscript titled "Lemonweed."

Herrin continued: "Bill writes of larger-than-life sinners, whom he redeems. Such is the power of great art and the great artist who produced it. His town, his territory, is Albany, N.Y., as Faulkner's was Yoknapatawpha County and Garcia Márquez's is Macondo. You frequently hear Bill Kennedy's name and achievements mentioned in the company of those two giants, and the comparison is entirely deserved."

At that point in his career, Kennedy, a former newspaper reporter and editor in Albany and in Puerto Rico, had also published "The Ink Truck" and "Legs" to good notices but few sales. "I remember that night very well," he said. "It was one of the worst nights of weather in the history of weather. ... I cherish those nine people who were here."

Kennedy returned to Cornell to teach fiction and poetry -- a subject he said he has not taught since -- in 1982-83. "Perhaps that was the year Cornell brought him some much-deserved luck," Herrin suggested, "for that was the year that 'Lemonweed,' now titled 'Ironweed,' found a publisher. So maybe Cornell redeemed itself, and we're back to even."

Cornell's Epoch magazine published two chapters from "Ironweed" before it won the Pulitzer Prize and established Kennedy as the Bard of Albany. His earlier and subsequent work -- "Quinn's Book," "Very Old Bones" and "The Flaming Corsage" -- found large readerships. He wrote the screenplays for "Ironweed" and Francis Ford Coppola's "Cotton Club" and received a MacArthur Fellowship.

This trip to Cornell, where he spoke in Goldwin Smith Hall's Hollis E. Cornell Auditorium, Kennedy read from "Roscoe" (2002), a political novel set in Albany: "That year, an ill wind blew over the city that threatened to destroy flower pots, family fortunes, reputations, true love and several types of virtue."

It's Aug. 14, 1945, at Albany's Ten Eyck Hotel, and the trademark Kennedy amused generosity is on display: "And there sits Roscoe beside his father, eavesdropping as the old man holds court for a steady, life-giving flow of pols, pals, has-beens and would-bes." Roscoe's political boss father, Felix, receives a supplicant: "He leans farther and farther forward as he speaks ever so softly to Felix, finally rolling off the sofa onto one knee to make his message not only sincere but genuflectional, and he whispers to the Solomon of Albany politics, 'You do want the Democrats to make a comeback and take city hall again, don't you, sir?'"

Kennedy also read from an unfinished, untitled novel set in Cuba and, of course, Albany. "This is a peculiar book," Kennedy said.

J. Robert Lennon, a novelist and Cornell creative writing assistant professor, has posted an audio interview with Kennedy on the Writers at Cornell blog: http://writersatcornell.blogspot.com/.

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