William Kennedy Essay - Kennedy, William (Vol. 6)

Kennedy, William (Vol. 6)

Kennedy, William 1928–

Kennedy is an American newspaperman and novelist, the author of The Ink Truck and Legs.

I've … never been able to figure out why Americans, who make such good gangster movies, write such awful gangster novels. Surely all the elements are there of what we are pleased to call the stuff of fiction…. And yet when it comes to exploiting it, a strange malaise seems to creep over the collective novelistic consciousness…. We can turn cowboys into literature, we can turn businessmen into literature, we can turn doctors, farmers, soldiers, professors, and real estate speculators into literature, but until now gangsters—and, interestingly, politicians—have eluded the novelist's informing eye. I am happy to report that William Kennedy has at last taken steps to set matters to rights.

It is necessary to tread cautiously here, as it always is when one encounters a reasonable facsimile of a book one has longed to read. Anyone expecting a masterpiece will have to wait a while longer; Kennedy's fictional study of the bootlegger Jack "Legs" Diamond [Legs] is a good book, not a great one. It is far less ambitious than it could have been, and it is possible that Kennedy becomes somewhat more fond of his hero than is good for him. In a way, the book is a pastiche of sorts; Kennedy quite clearly finds a number of parallels between the life of Jack Diamond and the life of Jay Gatsby, and he has even gone so far as to adopt Fitzgerald's narrative strategy. That is, the story is told by a relative outsider … who, like Nick Carroway, remains detached from the action to the extent that he is compelled to reconstruct much of it and imagine a good deal of the rest.

This imitative device is neither a whimsical nor a gratuitous one; it performs an essential function. It introduces a comparatively "normal" person, easily identified with, into a situation that at its mildest can only be described as peculiar. We both enter the story and at the same time remain at a distance from it, involved and yet endowed with analytical perspective…. [Despite Kennedy's] casualness about … violence, a quality sometimes banal and sometimes outrageously funny,… at no time does one sense either a brooding evil or an impersonal malevolence; there is a kind of quiet normality about it….

[Jack Diamond] acted the way he did because nobody stopped him; the nation allowed him his life because he entertained it, because he acted out an obsessive inner fantasy, because he was cut precisely to the measure of his culture. He was no different from anybody else; he only became a hero of sorts because he actually did what most people only dream about—and did it well. Legs is what a novel is supposed to be: a mirror walking down the road of man, and it deserves our closest and most serious attention.

L. J. Davis, "Diamond in the Rough," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), May 18, 1975, p. 3.

One of the pleasures of Legs, Kennedy's second novel, is that it drove me back to his first, The Ink Truck…. Both books have in common Kennedy's sustained verbal energy. His is a talent that has traditionally clustered on the front porches of country stores, or in taverns, or on the airwaves of special disc jockeys. It is a compulsive talent, made all the more valuable as the recent world threatens daily to leave words behind. Taking that abandonment as a challenge, Kennedy sometimes seems to show how he can, hocus pocus, weave the whole world with words. His is a spell that works. (p. 23)

The Big Boy in The Ink Truck was named Bailey, a budding columnist full of baloney, himself and his words…. He's a mouthful of style, he's jobless, he's hovering, but he's not transcendent. He's one of the noble zanies to whom the novel of the '60s fondly tended here and abroad. He's hanging just beyond credibility, but just short of myth's ozone.

As if to solve these problems, Kennedy has chosen for his next Big Boy, Mr. Jack "Legs" Diamond, the great gangster, a man who is both entirely credible in that rags-to-riches way of American history and entirely ozonic in the splendiferous way of American headlines…. He was a man with gargantuan appetites and deeds; Kennedy's style would have had to invent them if they didn't exist. Legs Diamond has innate credibility. You don't believe this character is a real possibility? Well, go look him up yourself….

Kennedy's interests are clearly sociological and psychological, but he is a novelist at bottom. He wants the sort of indefinite and suggestive truth germane to fiction, hostile to statistics, and finally dependent on the lode of language mined in the privacy of imagination…. Kennedy has looked to the compost of the past not to escape the present, nor to establish a preconceived thesis, but to talk about one of the sources for our own days. Legs was one of the Big Boys of the American compost. (p. 24)

W. T. Lhamon, Jr., in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), May 24, 1975.

"Legs" is … not a crime novel at all but a real novel about a criminal—there is a difference. In taking Jack (Legs) Diamond for his subject, Kennedy means to probe our peculiar American habit of reviling gangsters while pressing them for autographs. He cannot explain this ambiguity, perhaps because he shares it himself, but he attests to its existence: "The admirably white core fantasy that can give evil a mythical dimension … Heroes and poets followed Jack's tribulations with curiosity, ambivalent benevolence, and a sense of mystery at the meaning of their own response."

"Legs" is cast in "The Great Gatsby" mold: a portrait of a gangster, man and legend, in the last year and a half of his life…. Jack appears to his biographer as the honest thief, never a hypocrite, but "a venal man of integrity…. He never ceased to renew his vulnerability to punishment, death, and damnation." Jack is a hero, then, or at least a man so alive he cannot believe, when the bullets finally overcome him, in his own death. It is a peculiarly seductive portrait and "Legs" is a very skillful story, full of bounce and wit. (pp. 89, 93)

Peter S. Prescott, in Newsweek (copyright 1975 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), June 23, 1975.