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From the Times Union: Kennedy deconstructs 'Legs' for brain-injured readers

Thank you to the Albany Times Union for giving us permission to reprint this story, originally published in the paper on December 7.

“I had a lot of fun. They asked great questions,” novelist William Kennedy said. It was the first time an author had visited the book club, which has been in existence for several years.

(Paul Grondahl / Special to the Times Union)

Grondahl: Kennedy deconstructs 'Legs' for brain-injured readers

Pulitzer-winning author visits book club at a community-based clinic at The College of Saint Rose that serves adults with stroke and brain injury

Paul Grondahl

Dec. 7, 2022, First published in the Albany Times Union

ALBANY — Novelist William Kennedy was nearly two hours deep into an illuminating discussion with members of a book club about his novel “Legs,” when a question stopped him cold.

“Do you use confabulation when you write your novels?” asked Shelly Sweeney, 61, of Glenmont, who suffered multiple traumatic brain injuries in her youth, including a gym class collision and getting thrown from a horse.

Kennedy looked quizzical and asked her to explain.

Sweeney said it was not uncommon for her and other book club members – who suffered a stroke or traumatic brain injury, known as TBI – to try to fill in gaps in memory by fabrication as a way to cover up deficits.

Confabulation becomes a coping mechanism for those who suffered brain damage, she added.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist grinned and conceded that he is in fact, a longtime practitioner of literary confabulation.

“Oh, sure, that’s the nature of the game when writing novels,” Kennedy told members of a book club who had read “Legs,” a novel about legendary gangster Jack “Legs” Diamond. It was published in 1975 and was the first of eight novels set in Albany with interrelated family members known as the Albany Cycle.

“The whole novel is a gap when you’re starting out,” Kennedy explained. “I wrote about eight drafts of ‘Legs’ and worked on it so long it seemed like I could never fill the gap.”

The book club is part of a community-based clinic at The College of Saint Rose that serves adults with stroke and brain injury. There are about 35 people between the ages of 25 and 80 who participate each semester under the guidance of faculty and graduate students.

“The popular belief is that recovery can only happen in the first six to 12 months after a stroke or brain injury and we’ve shown that’s simply not true,” said Melissa Capo, speech-language pathologist and a clinical supervisor of the program.

College of Saint Rose faculty and graduate students provide services under a federally funded program that serves adults who suffered a stroke or other traumatic brain injury and book club is a popular element of the classes at The College of Saint Rose. (Paul Grondahl / Special to the Times Union)

Annually, about 800,000 Americans have a stroke, most commonly when blood flow to the brain is blocked. Stroke is a leading cause of death and long-term disability in the U.S., but it is preventable and treatable, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. High blood pressure is the leading risk factor. In addition, there were 224,135 TBI-related hospitalizations in 2019 and 64,362 TBI-related deaths in 2020, according to the CDC.

“With the right amount of support, the gaps can be filled and progress can be made in the late phases of recovery,” Capo said. “Book club is a way to improve reading and comprehension by discussing a book despite communication and cognitive obstacles.”

It was the first time an author had visited the book club and excitement among attendees was palpable.

“It was wonderful to have Bill there to answer our questions about specific details in his novel. I found it stimulating,” said Andy Carlson, 78, of Troy, an engineer and retired state employee. He suffered a traumatic brain injury four years ago after a fall from a ladder and spent three weeks in Albany Medical Center and four months in rehab at Helen Hayes Hospital in Rockland County. He had to relearn speech. Reading remains a challenge.

“It took me about 30 seconds to read each word when I started in this program two years ago. I’ve come a long way,” Carlson said. He was thrilled when Kennedy accepted his offer to visit the book club. He last met the author about 40 years ago, when Carlson’s daughter took a dance class at the Averill Park studio of Kennedy’s wife, Dana.

Each book club member had a particular assignment as they read “Legs,” including compiling a timeline, listing themes and creating footnotes.

“I really liked the story, but I had trouble keeping track of the names,” Sweeney said. “I read every chapter three times.”

Sweeney was especially drawn to the scenes in the novel that took place at Prohibition-era bootlegger Diamond’s real-life Catskills getaway in Acra, a Greene County hamlet, which adjoined her family’s former resort.

The book club members wanted to know closely Kennedy’s life hewed to his subject. “He was a rock star of the underworld and the closest I got was running a football pool in college at Siena for gas money,” he said.”

Each question sent Kennedy down a rabbit hole of reverie. Carlson wanted to know the genesis of several pets in the novel.

“My first pet was a collie when I was a kid,” Kennedy explained. “I bought him as a puppy for $5 during the Christmas shopping rush in North Albany. I tucked him into my overcoat pocket and brought him home and named him Laddie.”

As an adult, Kennedy had a German shepherd named King the family brought from Puerto Rico to Averill Park and later a Kerry Blue terrier named Ginger plus assorted cats, including his favorite, a tabby named Sam, a swell writer’s companion.

“I took Sam with me to a cottage on Cape Cod because I had to write 100 pages to get paid $1,000 and I needed the money,” he said.

Kennedy conceded he over-researched “Legs,” including a glut of interviews he did with Diamond’s contemporaries. “I was using the same kind of saturation reporting I did as a journalist. I overloaded my imagination. I had spent five years writing and rewriting it, but it wasn’t coalescing as a story.”

Kennedy jettisoned the draft manuscripts (the stack reached higher than his 6-year-old son Brendan) and completely rewrote “Legs” over the next year.

Kennedy, who will turn 95 in January, is working on a new novel, a sweeping narrative that spans from 1609 to 1914. It’s told from the perspective of a filmmaker shooting a movie in North Albany where Kennedy grew up. It focuses on Martin Glynn, publisher of the Times Union who became New York’s first Irish American governor after William Sulzer’s impeachment in 1913 following clashes with corrupt Tammany Hall.

Kennedy fretted he succumbed to saturation reporting once more and might need a complete overhaul of the manuscript.

He paused to swallow a pill with a sip of water.

“I take a lot of pills,” Kennedy said.

“We all do,” Carlson said, as the others chuckled. “Welcome to the club.”


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