THIS WHIMSICAL, rather precious tale about a mythical newspaper strike in a mythical town called Albany, N.Y., is William Kennedy's first novel. His most recent novel, Ironweed, won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle award for fiction. If nothing else, "The Ink Truck" demonstrates how much Kennedy has improved in 15 years.
The newspaper strike in Albany is all but lost. Management is crafty and venal. A handful of diehard strikers plot and dream of victory. The Guild representative is a fink. Some gypsies wander in and out of the action. There is a good bit of slightly kinky sex. But mostly the novel is about Bailey, the striking columnist, who grows rather tiresome by page 72.
I suppose that, in a way, "The Ink Truck" is a kind of literary evolution from the hard- breathing proletarian novels of the '30s to the slightly wacky ones that the screwed up politics of the '60s inspired. In a new author's note, Kennedy writes that what pleases him most about his novel "is that the political wisdom that most allowed me to survive a hostile decade has not rotted away." Given today's quirky political climate, I suppose you can take that any way you like.
The novel's protagonist, Bailey, is your usual lusty, bibulous, driven, paranoid columnist, much given to long thoughts and sharp insights, but beneath the pain (and he gets beat up innumerable times) a chuckling philosopher of mordant wit who sees it all clearly. He is also something of a bore.
As I waded deeper into the novel, I found myself siding with management for the first time in my life. And if the striking newsmen are a feckless lot, management, as represented by the evil Stanley, is truly terrible but, on the whole, preferable to our columnist hero.
Others in the cast of characters include a dotty ex-tugboat captain who worships a Siamese cat; the sexy and perverse Miss Blue (blue films, I suppose); Rosenthal, the striker, who is sensitive and loyal; and Jarvis, the Guild local chairman, who is neither. And then there are the gypsies.
They keep popping up whenever things lag. One of them is called Seventh Elevator and you are treated to a lot of gypsy lore and myth, although this is the first time that I can recall their being employed to break a strike. But then I haven't read all the novels written about newspapers, or strikes either, thank God.
A little more than halfway through the book you are dealt a 19-page dreamlike flashback that has to do with an 1832 cholera epidemic in Albany. I somehow got the impression that a lot of deadly earnest research was being salvaged here, but then most writers are an economical lot. Give it a fresh coat of surrealism and nobody can tell it from new.
The Ink Truck is not really about newspapering, or striking reporters, or even an ink truck. What it seems to be about mostly is disappointment, disenchantment, disillusionment and how to cope with them, providing you're lusty and honest and reasonably brave. Failing that, you can turn to drink, which our protagonist does on more than one occasion, proving that he is just as normal as the rest of us.
There really is an ink truck. And the strikers plot to spew its contents about, thus depriving the wicked newspaper of its life blood. The plot fails, of course, and the ink truck gets to be a useful futility symbol. Or something.
In a 1969 review, an anonymous Washington Post Book World reviewer is quoted on The Ink Truck's dust jacket as calling Kennedy's first novel "a work of the imagination, inventive, circular, multilayered . . . A fine debut by a writer of obvious talent and much promise."
I agree with some of the reviewer's assessment and all of his (her?) prescience. Kennedy is a talented writer. Unfortunately, in The Ink Truck he is both talented and cute. But there is promise in this first novel, and few will argue that he has not lived up to it.