Book review: O Albany!: Improbable City of Political Wizards, Fearless Ethnics, Spectacular, Aristocrats, Splendid Nobodies, and Underrated Scoundrels, by William J. Kennedy

originally posted elsewhere: September 17, 2004

tl;dr: Rated four of five stars, but subtract a star if you're not terribly interested in learning about Albany, NY....

William Kennedy has not achieved his stated aim with O Albany!: I do not think that people in Kansas City, with no particular interest in learning about Albany, will enjoy O Albany! more than Mr. Kennedy's fiction works sited in that city. However, for passionate Kennedy fans interested in learning about his novels' settings, and for anyone with an interest in learning about Albany (more likely a broader audience), O Albany! is recommended, with some minor hesitations.

O Albany! is a quirky history. To its credit, it most definitely is not a dispassionate, straightforward, chronological history (that would be too dry, and would waste Kennedy's storytelling talents). Instead, O Albany! is the author's own anecdotal, personal, episodic slice of Albany's history. Kennedy covers many salient aspects, but plumbs certain subjects too deeply (such as the neighborhoods, and his tendency to cite too many names of people and businesses - this makes for some tedious reading) while only touching upon certain episodes of the lives of more interesting subjects (e.g. Legs Diamond, and the Barnes Republican machine, which preceded the O'Connell Democratic machine with which Kennedy is naturally more acquainted).

A book cover with the author's name and title featured prominently at the top, over a composite image of some old brick buildings, a newspaper logo, a trollycar, and four men dressed in clothing appropriate for decades ago

The best parts of O Albany! are Kennedy's freeform reminiscences about his boyhood neighborhood, and the profiles of the Albany Democratic machine and the shady, corrupt dealings (at all levels, from the governor on down) that were done in order to, slowly and expensively, erect the South Mall. These are far from the only shady dealings described, however. The Albany Democratic party comes across as a cross between the Communists (because of their absolute single-party dominance, and the power of the unelected party chief) and the Mafia. Kennedy offers some reasons why Albany has tolerated this situation, but since he does not lament what Albany would otherwise be (perhaps, a city of more wealth and energy, especially in the private and creative sectors), a critic might call him an apologist. But, although Kennedy has chosen Albany for his home, he does point out the many warts, so he accepts Albany for what it is without being blind to its faults.

Albany has a much more interesting history than I was expecting. It has an image as a drab city dominated by government and its minions of risk-avoiding job-for-life 9-to-5 bureaucrats. The past, and how it came to be the city that it is now, however, is much livelier, and Kennedy captures this in his book.

p.s. Kennedy includes some funny stories, but the funniest joke is perhaps an unintentional one: in the index, the entry for "vote fraud" reads "See Democratic Party".