Marion Roach Smith is the author of four mass-market books. A former staffer at The New York Times, she has been a commentator on NPR’s "All Things Considered" and a talk show host on Sirius Satellite Radio. She currently runs a writing lab and teaches memoir worldwide at marionroach.com.  

"The book that most influenced my life was one about a murderous bootlegger written by William Kennedy. The poet I live by is Emily Dickinson."

Books help us find our home

By Marion Roach Smith

On August 3rd, 1963 a family put down $1,000 and bought a furnished house, five acres, and a car and moved to Burden Lake Road in Averill Park, a town near Albany in upstate New York. A picnic to celebrate followed immediately in the back yard.

 

The family was then made up of a writer, William Kennedy, his wife, and their children.

 

Soon, strange things started to happen.

 

Nearly at once, over the house of the family, the dead started to gather. It was the writer who had caused this gathering of the dead, having said one too many times that he doesn’t hear the Muses, and that his characters do not inhabit him, but that he prefers to inhabit them to some degree. That made the dead mad, and as we all know, mad dead are the worst dead of all, and they started to agitate. The first thing they did, as is well-documented, was vote in the general elections of Albany, Schenectady and Rensselaer counties.

 

As time passed and the writer wrote but refused to listen to these gathering voices, the dead began voting in record numbers in the general elections, many of them voting twice. In the history of upstate, this was a monumental event, this gathering of the voting dead. But then, what else were they to do?

 

The dead had time on their side. They waited. They watched. And as the writer chose a long-dead gangster named Legs Diamond for his first book in what would become known as his Albany cycle, they figured he was going to turn to them for facts on the life of the murderous man.

 

The writer demurred.

 

Getting out his notebook, he did the death-defying thing that writers sometimes do: He went out and actually reported his story. He spoke to the living, that wild pack of liars who like to tell tales. And there were hundreds of them, it seemed, who knew Legs Diamond, or knew someone who knew him, or never knew the bum but told stories anyway. The writer was as happy as writers get.

 

And the dead waited on, doing what the upstate New York dead do: voting and milling about until the next general election.

 

Then the writer whose imagination seemed lit from a light within took on the topic of one man’s greatest game of billiards. And the dead had no choice but to move from voting only in the generals to looking for more places to be heard. They learned about primaries and special elections. Suddenly no election was too small. They voted for dog catcher, and even for the district attorney; in all, they rocked the vote.

 

Then one night in 1983, a fortune cookie tumbled into the lap of the writer. This part is true, by the way.

The slender paper inside read,

This will be your lucky week.

And it was. In the same week, the writer received the MacArthur genius award and published Ironweed, whose opening lines are as gracious, lovely and compelling as ever an opening scene contained and which portray a cemetery, the best place to hear what the dead have to say.

 

Suddenly, seemingly overnight, the voting numbers dropped in upstate New York counties of Albany, Schenectady and most precipitously Rensselaer. Why? Feeling themselves heard, the dead never voted again, which seems such a shame now, considering what a mess the living with their suffrage.

Page 1 of William Kennedy's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Ironweed, published in 1983.

* * *

Thinking magically about upstate is possible in the land that Mr. Kennedy has immortalized. So much so, in fact, that some of us have made this place home in no small part because of his work. In my case, it is one single Kennedy book that led me here, and perhaps has kept me here, setting in motion a great desire to make my way to my very own sense of place.

 

At the time I came into possession of the book, a whole other life was being lived while working at a great newspaper, savoring the myriad restaurants and clubs of Manhattan. But another life was going on inside, in no small part stirred to life by the contents of my purse, where tucked in amid the makeup and notebooks, and carried literally everywhere during my 27th year, there was that paperback book.

Thrust brand new into my hands by a good bookseller was Legs, whose story is as much of terror as it is of redemption. That book traveled with me to some of the better places in New York City, fitting neatly in both briefcase and evening bag.

 

Originally published in 1975, I came by my copy of Legs in 1983, just after it was reprinted and published by Penguin. It, and the two successive so-called Albany cycle novels that followed, created a kind of worship among the young writers I knew, and made Mr. Kennedy our dervish, particularly as the cycle, already written and suddenly rereleased, seemed to us to spin effortlessly downstate.

 

At the time the books were reissued, I was a clerk at The New York Times. Having started among one of the last classes of copyboys — those lucky drones who run around the newsroom all day, or in my case, all night, fetching wire copy and delivering it to the appropriate desk, getting clips from the morgue, coffee from the deli — at a time when murders above 96th Street were considered out of town, and anything upstate was Albany.

First edition cover of Legs by William Kennedy, published in 1975.  It is the first book in Kennedy's Albany Cycle.

Albany was a curse on the lips to any reporter who was sent there. As a Metropolitan Desk clerk, I spent more time getting people out of Albany —making train reservations, booking planes in blizzards, scanning Greyhound schedules — than nearly any other chore. No one pined to cover the legislature, and absolutely not one single reporter spent an extra second in the reportedly moribund place, instead rushing home every Thursday night after the legislative session was concluded. 

 

And then Mr. Kennedy told us a different tale of a place we thought we knew well, starting with a small book on murder and mayhem.

 

My own copy of Legs has its own history. Examining it, I can see it was purchased when I still wrote my name in books written by someone other than myself. My own signature reveals a flourish I was boldly trying out, its youthful hubris seeping onto the page. The battered paperback includes my own passionate underlinings — so astonished was I by the writer’s sentences of syncopation and humor, reeking magic with the realism that I had thought was mere Albany, I felt they deserved to be scored right there on the page. How could he do so much with so little, I wondered?

 

It’s not that I hadn’t known writers and their power. Both my parents, and my sister, were writers. And it's not that I hadn’t known upstate: St. Lawrence University, my beloved alma mater, lies four hours further north than Albany.

 

What I had not yet discovered was that a life spent making art could be lived upstate. That is what the book shook loose, though it remains surprising even to me that such provocation came via the tale of a murderous Legs.

 

I soon quit my perfectly good job at The New York Times to write my first book. That other book stayed in the purse, and traveled with me when I moved to the Albany area to write full time.

 

At the recent New York State Writers Institute's Albany Book Festival, among the writers who traveled to Albany was Mark Kurlansky, author of such books as Salt and Cod, who reminds us that history can be told in a crystal of seasoning or the tale of a fish.

 

So it is with me and Kennedy's Legs, and while it’s only the history of finding my way home, I can see nothing as important to any of us as getting there, and few pursuits more worth the effort. After all, after finding a true home, we can go anywhere.

Trolley c/o NYS Writers Institute

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University at Albany

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