When you are parachuting into Albany for only a few hours you can't do much better than winding up at the Ristorante Paradiso, on the distant side of midnight, hearing Albany stories from William Kennedy. This is his place, his favorite haunt in his favorite town, the spot on the planet where he has labored heroically to convert the textures and smells and accents into the durable medium of literature. Dublin has Joyce; Chicago has Bellow and Nelson Algren. Oxford, Mississippi, reimagined as Yoknapatawpha County, has Faulkner. Albany has Kennedy.
`Albany,` he says, "is one of the most interesting cities in the United States. It's without peer in terms of age, sluttishness, eminence and glory. Without Albany there wouldn't be a Chicago! Chicago is a nice town, but it's a Johnny-come-lately.`
`Let's face it, Albany could have been a contender.`
No one thinks of Albany as a great city. It more likely to be a punch line. It has some mistakes. A superhighway blocks access to the river. There are some architectural disasters. The rap on Albany is that it never could get its act together, that it couldn't pick up the garbage on time. But Kennedy loves it, and thinks the city is doing better than ever.
`Albany was always a great town. The action of life was always available. I'm talking all the way back to the 1850s.`
The restaurant is virtually empty, but Kennedy's table is doing its best to make it feel like the center of Albanian nightlife. There are writers and artists and videographers. An artist named J.S.G. Boggs, who draws currency, and spends it -- persuading people that his beautiful renditions of money are more valuable than the real thing 5/8 is going around the table with his pen, giving everyone some body art.
The Paradiso is so unapologetically Italian it's playing the theme music from "The Godfather.` Before it was the Paradiso it was the Boulevard Cafeteria, the meeting ground for power brokers and party bosses, open 24 hours. A framed newspaper ad from the 1920s boasts that the cafeteria has "Competent Men Waiters to Serve You Properly.` The place is strikingly beautiful, with stained glass windows and extravagant murals, including one, over the bar, of naked sirens writhing on the rocks by the sea, trying to lure Odysseus to his doom.
On one wall, there's a shrine to Kennedy, and to his greatest novel.
Kennedy was born in Albany in 1928, just in time for the Great Depression. After a stint in the Army and a few years in Miami and Puerto Rico he returned here, working as a journalist and writing fine novels that attracted little notice, not a single review from that big paper downstate, The New York Times. He says he didn't care. "That wasn't what I was about. I was about writing.`
And then one year everything changed, and changed wonderfully.
You might say he won the lottery, except he merely got his due. In 1983, at the age of 55, he burst to fame with his novel "Ironweed.` He won the National Book Critics Circle Award, and then the Pulitzer Prize, and somewhere in the mix he got a MacArthur Foundation "genius` award, and then came movie deals, and "Ironweed` hit the screens with two of the biggest stars in the world, Streep and Nicholson. If you look at the movie you'll see Streep breaking into song right here, in the Paradiso, and planting a kiss on a patron who happens to have been William Kennedy.
I asked what advice he'd give to young people wanting to be writers. It was very late at this point.
`Believe in the word,` he said. "The word is the supreme element of life.`
He's deeply engrossed in his next novel, which is titled "Roscoe in the Wind.`
It's about Albany.
Rough Draft appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 1 p.m. -- even after the author has been up very late drinking with a great writer.