"Riding the Yellow Trolley Car" is a rich cornucopia of novelist William Kennedy's nonfiction and a joyride most of the way.
Kennedy, whose fictional characters speak to the dead ("Ironweed") and come back from that seemingly encumbered state ("Quinn's Book"), gathered more than 80 stories, articles, interviews and book reviews from his labor in the more mundane field of journalism.The collection displays Kennedy's love affair with literature and with subject matter high and low. It is a look into the wellspring of his literary life, tracing tastes and a stately style that evolved fully in Kennedy's Albany novels, from "Legs" to the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Ironweed" to "Very Old Bones."
Some of the pieces in "Yellow Trolley" are superior. "Eggs" is a hilarious account of the writer's first efforts at the short story. Interviews with Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Saul Bellow and Robert Penn Warren should serve as models for those hubris-prone journalists who believe they are much more interesting than their subjects and write accordingly. Kennedy is a presence in the interviews, but never obtrusive, as he looks for the process of the artist as well as the personality of the man.
There is "Baseball at Hawkins Stadium," about down-to-earth memories that uplift the spirit. And there is "Jack and the Oyster," about a 90-year-old oyster-shucker in Albany. Here is Kennedy on Jack of the succulent bivalves and on the hometown of both: "Jack, and this is true, has been shucking oysters for 81 years. No, you say. Well that's the way things happen in Albany. People go about doing things for eighty-one years and then the word gets around they've been doing it and people say, No. . . ."
His early newspaper pieces are no show-stoppers. A 1954 obit on Langford, a prominent cat about Albany, is a notable exception. Some of his celebrity profiles reveal little more than his admiration for the likes of Sinatra and Diane Sawyer. The book could be several such less interesting articles shorter.
His reviews of the works of other writers - Hemingway, Steinbeck, Doctorow, Malamud, DeLillo and a slew of Latin Americans - are almost always generous. Some critical readers may find his reviews too upbeat, and Kennedy acknowledges he prefers to review the books he likes and gets no joy in skewering a fellow novelist. He appears to know that failure is the novelists' norm and that when on those rare occasions the subliminal is sculpted into the sublime, there is cause for great celebration.
Kennedy, who was a reporter for the Albany Times-Union and the managing editor of the San Juan Star in Puerto Rico, often returns in these pieces to the theme of nonfiction vs. fiction, as though it were a contest between the two forms to better tell it like life is.
The book's title refers to this dichotomy. In 1972, on his way in Barcelona to interview Garcia Marquez, another fabulist-prone journalist-turned-novelist, Kennedy believes he sees a yellow trolley car, the last of which he later learns was buried two years before. He recalls that he grew up riding trolleys to school and that they appear in most of his novels. He first equates riding the trolley with writing fiction, then realizes the trolley vision could also signify some of the creative thrust of his nonfiction writing.
Kennedy quotes Garcia Marquez as saying that the sources, the material, the resources and the language of both fiction and nonfiction are the same, and notes that Mary Gordon cites "War and Peace" and "The Confessions of St. Augustine" as comparably great works. Then he decides that while there is validity in both arguments, ". . . fiction, at its most achieved, comes from a source - a profound wellspring in the unconscious - that is not accessible to nonfiction, unless the form is stretched to the point where it overlaps with, or is indistinguishable from, fiction."
"Trolley Car" shuttles the reader through Kennedy's fictional influences. The American works he admires - Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath," Doctorow's "The Book of Daniel" - shows his penchant for people on the margins of society. His deep appreciation of his masterful Hibernian ancestors, Joyce and Beckett, clues us into the lyrical dark humor in his works, where Irish angst is smiling through its guilt. His admiration for several Latin American writers points toward the magic that often appears in his realism.
And Kennedy tells of a more immediate source, revealed in "Eggs." He explains the plot of his first short story: a man goes into a diner and orders scrambled eggs from a reluctant counterman, eats them and leaves. It appears that his father was the one family member who noted the story's true worth. After reading it, the elder Kennedy said: "What the hell is this?" Kennedy reread the story 45 years later and realized that his father had been a masterful literary critic.
Kennedy says that when he published his first novel, his father was almost senile. Still, the elder Kennedy bragged about the book at the state Supreme Court where he worked.
"He said it was about how two thousand cows get swept out to sea in Puerto Rico. Actually the book is set in Albany and doesn't have any cows. But you can see how with that kind of imagination and critical apparatus in my genes it was inevitable that I'd become a writer."