(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

William Kennedy’s Albany novels tell the saga of the Irish American Phelan, Quinn, and Daugherty families, and a sixth, Legs, deals with the Depression-era gangster Jack “Legs” Diamond. All share the upstate New York region, the city of Albany in particular, as their principal location and involve historical and fictional figures and events. The Albany cycle portrays events and characters during many decades, and the most influential characters and events are interwoven through several novels.

Legs, the first novel of the cycle to be published, stands outside the family saga and is the fictionalized story of Legs Diamond, a complex antihero who achieved mythic status among the urban working classes during the politically corrupt years of Prohibition. Its narrator, Marcus Gorman, is a decadent Albany lawyer who is fascinated with Diamond. Gorman befriends and legally defends Diamond, acting as the intelligent observer of societal norms and corrupt deviance from them. He appears as a minor character in the second novel, Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game, which also involves the seamier side of Albany political life. Billy Phelan, the central character, is the abandoned son of the man who is the central character of Kennedy’s breakthrough work, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Ironweed, which properly begins the saga of individual, family, and ethnic identity.

Francis Phelan is the guilt-ridden father who has...

(The entire section is 413 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Albany was a wide-open town in the 1930’s. The capital of the state of New York, it was also the wholly owned property of the corrupt and apparently omnipotent Democratic machine headed by Patsy McCall. Although the notorious gangster Jack “Legs” Diamond concentrated most of his criminal activities outside the city itself, it was a fitting place for him to be shot to death, as he was at 67 Dove Street early in the morning of December 18, 1931.

In 1948, however, Marcus Gorman still is not sure that Diamond is dead. Marcus was Diamond’s attorney and, at the time of the shooting, had just won him an acquittal on a charge of kidnapping. In the months leading up to these events, Marcus, after a casual meeting with Diamond in a speakeasy in the summer of 1930, found himself drawn more and more into the gangster’s orbit. At first, Marcus’s personal and professional relationship with Diamond remained within clearly defined boundaries. Marcus was able to avoid any complicity in the criminal life of his client. Diamond, however, was the object of a national obsession. It was hard for Marcus, a lapsed Catholic whose hierarchy of values was shaky to begin with, to resist this man who so fascinated a nation.

Marcus knew, for example, that sailing to Europe with Diamond could compromise an attorney’s professional standing, but he went. On the voyage, he resisted the proposal that he carry stolen jewels, and when Diamond, accepting Marcus’s decision, cast the stones in the ocean, Marcus was impressed. Diamond seemed to be a man of integrity; he continued to respect the boundaries defined by Marcus. Diamond also had flair; throwing those valuable jewels over the side was a grand gesture.

Marcus either underestimated Diamond or overestimated himself. Before long, Marcus was wearing a money belt; the money it concealed was money Diamond stole from other gangsters. It was not surprising that by the time of the kidnapping trial, Marcus’s defense strategy included constructing a false alibi for a client of whose guilt he had no doubt. Like the women who loved Diamond—Alice, his wife, and Kiki, his mistress—and like the country that was fascinated by him, Marcus was.

Looking back seventeen years after Diamond was fatally shot, Marcus is still not convinced the gangster is dead. Was he simply transformed from the mortal man of flesh and blood to the mythic man of collective memory and imagination?

Diamond was a force, a man who could take on a place like Albany, to some extent even shape it. His kind were few. More commonly, the people of Albany were shaped by the place and its institutions. The most powerful of these, even more powerful than...

(The entire section is 1103 words.)


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Edinger, Claudio. The Making of Ironweed. New York: Penguin Books, 1988. A detailed look at the 1987 film made from the third novel of The Albany Cycle and the process of its production. Kennedy himself wrote the script, and the book illuminates a number of aspects of the novel, as does a viewing of the film itself.

Kennedy, William. O Albany! Improbable City of Political Wizards, Fearless Ethnics, Spectacular Aristocrats, Splendid Nobodies and Underrated Scoundrels. New York: Viking Press, 1983.

Kennedy, William. Riding the Yellow Trolley Car. New York: Viking Press, 1993. The first section of this collection of pieces by Kennedy includes many of the author’s reflections on the novels that make up The Albany Cycle. The fifth section contains his account of the making of the film Ironweed.

McCaffery, Larry, and Sinda Gregory. Alive and Writing: Interviews with American Authors of the 1980’s. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987. Probing, engaging interview with Kennedy. Provides a concentrated supplement to the materials in Riding the Yellow Trolley Car.

Reilly, Edward C. William Kennedy. Boston: Twayne, 1991. Introduction to Kennedy’s life and works for the general reader. Broadly useful critical study. Includes bibliography.

Van Dover, J. K. Understanding William Kennedy. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991. Asserts that Kennedy moves toward his true subject in the process of writing The Albany Cycle. Heavy emphasis on the role of place in Kennedy’s work.