The idea of referring to the three novels Legs, Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game, and Ironweed by the collective title of The Albany Cycle was apparently not the idea of William Kennedy; reportedly, it was a marketing device devised by an editor at Viking, Kennedy’s publisher. Nevertheless, it is true to his perception early in his career that Albany, the city in which he grew up, would become his great subject. His first novel, The Ink Truck (1969), is set in Albany, although not in the 1930’s. Quinn’s Book (1988), although set in the nineteenth century, places much of the action in Albany. In Very Old Bones (1992), Kennedy returns to the period and some of the characters, including several Phelans, of the earlier The Albany Cycle. There is no place, Kennedy realizes, that he will ever know as he knows Albany. He further understands that he is the sort of writer for whom the sense of place is crucial. Abstract novels of psychological analysis do not interest him. His interest in place, specifically in Albany, is by no means primarily sociological. Rather, he wants to explore how the inner lives of human beings are shaped by the experience of living in a particular time and a particular place. Because all people are shaped by such forces, Kennedy’s examination of these particulars as they manifest themselves through highly individual characters is equally an examination of what may be most universal in human experience.
The protagonist of Legs, the first novel of The Albany Cycle, is a historical figure who operated around Albany and was finally shot to death there in 1931. Kennedy thoroughly researched Jack Diamond’s life, and, as far as the external events are concerned, the novel does not deviate significantly from the established facts. A documentary account of a killer’s life, however, is not the author’s goal. His Diamond transcends the historical record to enter the realms of legend and myth. Why, Kennedy asks, are people so fascinated with Diamond and with others like him? An important structural pattern is the seduction and moral collapse of Marcus Gorman. Since he is not predominantly evil, but a man of middling moral stature, Gorman’s inability to resist Diamond’s charisma symbolizes the hold a man such as Diamond can have on the imagination of...
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