William Kennedy American Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

In his early attempts at writing fiction, Kennedy turned to exotic locales and set his stories in Puerto Rico, where he worked briefly as a newspaper reporter and editor; however, like William Faulkner, James Joyce, and other notable writers before him, Kennedy soon realized that his most valuable fictional subject was his own hometown—Albany. Kennedy points to his time in Puerto Rico as an important stage in his development as a writer. Being away from home gave him the distance he needed to fictionalize the New York town he had come to know so well.

With the guidance of Bellow, who taught at the University of Puerto Rico, Kennedy began writing about what he knew best, the people and places of Albany. Uninterested in sanitizing his city’s past or present, he relinquished traditional civic pride and directed his attention to Albany’s most infamous citizens. Kennedy’s cast of characters includes the legendary gangsters, politicians, and everyday drifters who inhabit Albany’s Irish Catholic North End. During his days as a reporter for Albany’s Times-Union, Kennedy had come to know the people, their history, and their ways of talking and living.

Kennedy’s earlier works, particularly Legs and Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game, reflect his training as a newspaperman and are told in a fast-paced journalistic style. These first two novels of Kennedy’s Albany cycle are action-packed exposés of the city’s seamy underworld, run by cunning gangsters and a corrupt political machine. Both novels are told with an episodic quality that naturally creates a level of suspense appropriate to such sensational subject matter. While recounting the escapades of some of Albany’s more infamous citizens, Legs and Billy Phelan’s Great Game both present a similar psychological theme in their exploration of the ambiguous appeal of underworld life. Similar in many respects, the narrators of the two books are both peculiarly envious of the exciting, though often illegal, adventures of those whose stories they tell. With frank honesty and ironic humor, Kennedy adeptly explores this odd American fascination with immorality.

In Ironweed, Kennedy largely abandons his journalistic style and adopts a more lyrical, poetic approach. Still focusing on the psychological implications of immorality, Kennedy turns his investigation inward and explores the soul of a man haunted by his own sins and indiscretions. Unlike Jack “Legs” Diamond and Billy Phelan, Francis Phelan of Ironweed is no one’s hero. He is a bum on the run who must live with the guilt of knowing that he has let almost everyone in his life down, most of all himself. Taking an almost surrealistic approach, Kennedy literally resurrects the dead to talk to Francis and haunt him into confronting his disturbingly violent past. With the external action kept to a minimum, Ironweed is a powerful saga that draws its strength from one man’s internal struggle to find forgiveness from himself and from others.

Though it marks a noticeable stylistic break from the previous works, Quinn’s Book, like Ironweed, also shows a man struggling to come to terms with himself. A coming-of-age story set in nineteenth century Albany, Quinn’s Book traces young Daniel Quinn’s development into an artist and a lover. Kennedy uses authentic historical idiom and typical nineteenth century rhetoric to create characters of Dickensian proportion. Still using Albany’s colorful history as a backdrop, Kennedy employs a much more elaborate and grand style to bring nineteenth century Albany to life.

He employs similar techniques in his most recent novels, The Flaming Corsage and Roscoe. In The Flaming Corsage, a subtly sequenced look at a complex and tragic marriage, Kennedy uses imagination and skill to conjure a narrative structure that adds mystery and tension to the exuberant melodrama. Roscoe, a novel of city hall politics, works in much the same way, except with the added elements of dark horror and comedy. In these books, Kennedy is at his most lyrical and honest, and he has his essential instruments of novel-writing sharp and ready. Kennedy’s rich voice, particularly his crisp dialogue, allows him simultaneously to celebrate and ridicule rascals such as Roscoe Conway.

Without question, the most prevailing and distinguishing feature of Kennedy’s work is its strong sense of time and place. Throughout the years, Albany has suffered the fate of existing in the shadow of its more cosmopolitan neighbor, New York City. By comparison, Albany gained a reputation as a singularly unromantic, provincial city. Kennedy embraces this unlikely setting; peoples it with old, sick, poor, and degenerate characters; and out of it all manages to spin magical tales, full of feeling and importance.

Kennedy’s fiction focuses on the down-and-out—people in extreme situations, pushed to their limits, with their souls laid bare. The setting itself—Albany, in all its sordid splendor—acts as a character, a visible force shaping the lives of those who call the city home. In all of his novels, Kennedy treats his characters and their home with reverence and respect, never satirizing, sentimentalizing, or apologizing for their shortcomings.

In his raucous New York town, Kennedy creates a microcosm and paints a vivid picture of all that was wicked and corrupt and splendid in America’s not-so-distant past. Writing with an undeniable knowledge of the people, the idioms, and the history of his hometown, Kennedy creates an Albany alive with mythic possibilities and lavishes enthusiastic attention on those generally neglected by others. Kennedy’s work hails Albany as a durable town held up by a cast of resilient characters whose main concern, and talent, is survival. With a witty, ironic style, Kennedy blends nostalgia with serious history to create believable fiction. As Bellow commented upon the publication of Ironweed: “These Albany novels will be memorable, a distinguished group of books.”


First published: 1975

Type of work: Novel

A devoted friend and lawyer recounts the escapades of his boss, legendary gangster Jack “Legs” Diamond.

In Legs, Kennedy creates a fictional biography recounting the last year and a half of the life of Albany’s most notorious gangster. Jack “Legs” Diamond—a real-life bootlegger, murderer, drug dealer, and rascal—lived above the law, carrying out his business in upstate New York during Prohibition in the 1920’s and early 1930’s. Kennedy’s fictional account of this legendary figure was five years in the making, the result of painstaking historical research and eight drafts. Legs is, however, more than a catalog of one gangster’s exploits. It is a psychological and sociological look at America’s fascination with gangsters, murderers, and criminals of all types. Jack, like many gangsters of his era, was a celebrity, a national obsession. The newspapers were filled with details of his every move. He received fan mail, and cheers filled the courtroom when he was acquitted of one particularly brutal assault.

Legs is narrated by Marcus Gorman, Jack’s employee, friend, and admirer. The two first meet in the Catskills in 1925 when Marcus impresses Jack with his eloquent praise of Al Jolson, one of Jack’s favorite musicians. Later, Jack sends Marcus, an ambitious young lawyer, six quarts of Scotch in exchange for a pistol permit from Albany County. Attracted to the excitement and intrigue that surrounds this Irish American gangster-bootlegger, Marcus becomes Jack’s personal lawyer in 1930. While acknowledging the violence and crime, Marcus nevertheless idolizes his boss and recounts their days together with heartfelt admiration and devotion. Marcus declares that Jack was, above all, a man of integrity and deserves at least some credit for being an honest thief.

Working out of his headquarters in the Catskills, Jack made his money running liquor across the border from Canada during the days of Prohibition. His operation was huge and elaborate, with flocks of carrier pigeons used as messengers to avoid telephone wiretaps. Jack came to upstate New York after leaving New York City, where he had shot a customer at his nightclub—once in the stomach, once in the forehead, twice in the temple, and twice in the groin—then hit the man’s brother over the head with the spent revolver. Marcus tells the details of several other of Jack’s gruesome deeds. Once upstate, Jack tried to hang a local farmer, then did away with a competing rum-runner by dismembering him and burning his body in a still. Wherever Jack went, he left a trail of crime. He killed and tortured, dealt in liquor and heroin, and betrayed his associates. He bought judges, politicians, and policemen, and to many he seemed unstoppable. His body was filled with bullets and crossed with scars that his mistresses traced with their fingers. He was a ladies’ man who frequented whorehouses while his devoted wife, Alice, remained faithful to him to the end.

In 1931, Jack’s empire began to crumble. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, then governor of New York, brought a fourteen-count indictment against him. The new federal crowd seemed unbuyable, and in a raid on his headquarters in the Catskills, seized ten million dollars in warehouse stock. Later that year, Jack, wearing only his underwear, was gunned down in a rooming house.

Kennedy writes with wit and energy as he brings to light the moral ambiguity of success. With vivid language, Marcus’s powerful narrative evokes a strong sense of time and place and tells an engrossing story of violence, sex, love, and comedy. In Marcus’s mind, Jack never really died. He, in many ways, personifies the American Dream. He embodies the rags-to-riches story, rising to the top by shooting his way to fame. More important, as Marcus sees it, Jack “Legs” Diamond is a prototype for modern urban gangsters and lives on as one of the founding fathers of criminality, whose legacy is sure to be felt for years to come. As Marcus says in his tribute to one of Albany’s most memorable bullies, “Why he was a pioneer, the founder of the first truly modern gang, the dauphin of the town for years.”

Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game

First published: 1978

Type of work: Novel

An Albany newspaper columnist recounts the story of Billy Phelan, a small-time hustler who finds himself in the middle of a kidnapping and extortion plot.

Like Legs, Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game tells a story of Albany’s seamier side, based on an actual incident from the city’s history. In this second novel of what is often called the “Albany cycle,” Kennedy fashions his work of fiction around the real-life 1933 kidnapping of John O’Connell, Jr., the nephew of Mayor Dan O’Connell and the heir apparent to Albany’s omnipotent Democratic machine. In Kennedy’s novel, the year is moved forward to 1938, the O’Connells become the McCalls, and John, Jr., is known as Charlie Boy. Caught in the middle, torn between lending his services to the kidnappers or to the politicians, is Billy Phelan. Billy is a thirty-one-year-old pool hustler, bowling ace, poker player, and bookie who feels at home in the tough streets of this Depression-era town.

Along with its other similarities to Legs,...

(The entire section is 4733 words.)