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Robert Christgau

The Ink Truck
By William Kennedy
Viking, $15.95

Now that William Kennedy has won everything--the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Pulitzer, the MacArthur "genius" grant, not to mention the New York State Governor's Arts Award, two movie deals, and tenure--his first novel, The Ink Truck, has been hauled out of obscurity and into print. First published in 1969, and set like all Kennedy's fiction in Albany, the novel concerns the bizarre last days of a disastrously unsuccessful newspaper strike. As the book opens, "the Guild" has dwindled to three weirdos and their corruptible leader, Jarvis. Our hero is weirdo Bailey, a lusty, Joyce-loving columnist who wears a cossack hat and is married to a former roller derby queen but really loves the irresistibly pneumatic Guild diehard and weirdo Irma--a love, or lust, which Bailey shares with the third weirdo, cape-wearing Rosenthal (who doesn't get to first base). Bailey's program is to dump the contents of the company ink truck into the Albany snow, which indirectly invokes the wrath of an entire Gypsy community, which in turn puts him at the mercy of first a Zen turncoat, then the big boss's secretary, a mini-skirted creature whose sexual appetites are so sick they require the services of a mechanical bull . . .

Let's stop right here. Does this sound familiar? I think all my weirdo cronies planned to write this novel in the years when Kennedy did write The Ink Truck. Something must have been in the air--that taste for defeatism and sexual aids, suicidally buffoonish gestures, unnaturally idiomatic dialogue, and preposterous plots with ironic distance providing a shot of realism, in the sense that ketchup is a vegetable. The self-consciousness was so unexamined that heroes might think and even speak of themselves in third person. Here goes Bailey: "'Bailey says goodbye,' he said. 'Bailey stands there and thinks nostalgic thoughts. And then Bailey tells the spirit of the good old days: 'Spirit, you haven't got a hair on your ass if you think nostalgia will get Bailey.'"

Cynthia Ozick speaks of how comforting it is to read the fledgling efforts of the masters, and it certainly can be instructive. I took a look at part one (sort of titled, "A BIZARRE BOLLY FOLLOWS INK CARRIER/WHAT'S A BOLLY? PEOPLE ASK") and knew at once which of two drafts of my own persistently fledgling work-in-progress to discard: the sillier one. Dignity isn't always an advantage in art or anything, but in The Ink Truck we see a fellow so smitten with language he risks tickling it to death. By Legs, Kennedy has already invented (along with a real-life subject, '20s gangster Jack Diamond) a prose that can quit joking for a minute. By Billy Phelan's Greatest Game, he's found a sweet, roIling cadence, very mossy and Irish, which serves the amiable melancholy, the courtly compassion and meditative bravado into which Kennedy's original defeated heroic buffoonery has transmogrified.

Simplification--the pruning of convolutions, the shedding of ironies--is a sensible way to mature; so is the discovery of subject and values. I was more startled by what didn't change, or changed least, in spirit anyhow, from The Ink Truck to the later, realized work: an aspect inauspiciously heralded in the jacket blurb as "ever wilder and more surreal misadventures." "Surreal" is so often a misnomer for plain old preposterousness. And indeed the book's climax is an unlikely orgy in which it isn't crystal clear whether one woman really dies or the typewriter just lost its head, because the tone song-and-dances the whole scene with quips and repartee (Irma: "Should we strip?" Bailey: "When in Rome," etc.) But there are also harbingers of stronger stuff--the offhand Irish-American magic realism that will figure increasingly in Kennedy's work until, by Ironweed, the book of bums, a quarter of the characters are ghosts. Plop in the middle of The Ink Truck, Bailey steps for 20 pages out of the library stacks into a time 300 years back when Albany was Dutch and dying of cholera. I found in this fantasy (and also in various hallucinations following) a purity, a grace of invention, lacking everywhere else in this book.

Anyone who got 13 rejection letters for Ironweed deserves to get his laundry list printed like Nietzsche, and if Kennedy's going to be studied, as he should, his early stuff should be available. But The Ink Truck reads best combined with hindsight, which provides a delicious surprise ending: the lovely Albany trilogy, with its bittersweet evidence that, as it's often rumored, in the writing of novels, time is everything.

Voice Literarary Supplement, Oct. 1984