William Kennedy Kennedy, William (Vol. 28) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

William Kennedy 1928–

American novelist.

Labeled a regionalist writer in a positive sense, Kennedy has succeeded in putting Albany, New York, on America's literary map. In the three novels of his Albany cycle, Legs (1976), Billy Phelan's Greatest Game (1978), and Ironweed (1982), Kennedy has created what Paul Gray calls a "geography of the imagination." Focusing on depression-era Albany, Kennedy sympathetically but unsentimentally portrays its politicians, journalists, gamblers, and its down-and-out "low-life" people. As a life-long resident, Kennedy knows the city well. He was a former reporter for the Albany Times Union and has been an English professor in that city at State University of New York.

Although most critics enthusiastically praise his fourth novel, Ironweed, Kennedy's earlier fiction received mixed appraisals. The Ink Truck (1969), a fast-paced black comedy about a newspaper strike, was considered promising by one critic in its blend of fantasy and reality, but another contended that its surrealistic elements were unnecessary. Similarly, Legs was denounced by some as tedious and ambiguous in its moral stand, but others viewed it as a skillful, vigorous novel. In general, however, most critics find Kennedy's characterizations and dialogue outstanding and suggest he has finally realized his potential in Ironweed, winner of the 1983 National Book Critics Circle Award.

(See also CLC, Vol. 6 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88.)

Shane Stevens

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Novels that combine reality and fantasy are not generally successful. Either the reality obtrudes to where the fantastic becomes merely ridiculous, or the fantasy dwarfs the real. But sometimes the combination works: richness of imagination does not get in the way of the storytelling. William Kennedy's first novel, The Ink Truck, is one of these happy few.

The Ink Truck is a work of the imagination, inventive, circular and multi-layered. Yet its characters are as real as they are symbolic, the scenes as much reality as fantasy. Normally, novels of great imaginative density, such as those of John Barth, are unreadable. As the reader sinks deeper into the author's stream of consciousness, the threads of the story unravel. Not so with The Ink Truck. Kennedy has been able to confine his wickedly surrealist imagination within a well-told tale. The result is a Dantesque journey through the hells of existence….

The Ink Truck is a fine debut by a writer of obvious talent and much promise.

Shane Stevens, "A Guided Tour in Hell," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1969 Postrib Corp.; reprinted by permission of Chicago Tribune and The Washington Post), October 5, 1969, p. 16.

Daniel St. Albin Greene

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Don't let the title of William Kennedy's first novel mislead you. The Ink Truck has little to do with an ink truck; even the newspaper strike the truck symbolizes is only a framework for the wild obsessions of its central figure—a chap named Bailey, who tilts incessantly against windmills in lonely resistance to conformism. It is this character's comic recalcitrance that throbs through the book and makes it an extraordinary achievement.

Bailey is a loser of heroic dimensions. He has the irrational idealism of the Man of La Mancha, the life style of Jimmy Breslin, the indomitable bellicosity of a guerrilla fighter. An eloquent wild man of large intellect and larger spleen, he is the most intransigent of a tiny knot of diehard strikers, hapless remnants of a once-cocky Newspaper Guild local that walked out on the paper a year ago. In forlorn perseverance, they still go to the guild office every day, keep free-lance pickets walking up and down, and try to sustain the appearance of militancy—even though everybody knows if the strike were settled now, they would be worse off than before they struck.

By this time, fighting the lost cause has become a way of life to Bailey and his inept colleagues….

Bailey, a syndicated columnist of waning comprehensibility, is incapable of doing anything half-heartedly. He harasses and beats up scab reporters; hatches crazy espionage schemes, such as sneaking...

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Stanley Reynolds

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I do not think one can blame the barbaric culture of the New World for … The Ink Truck. The novel has the look of something typed in dull moments around a newspaper office: the first chapters of the great comic novel that Joe at the next desk is going to finish one of these days. The Ink Truck is about a newspaper strike, and one feels that Mr Kennedy was unfortunate to have had the free time given to him to finish his 'comic masterpiece'. In the fashionable mould of Catch-22 or Kurt Vonnegut Jr, his novel departs from anything resembling real life before it even starts. The crazy, surrealistic antics serve no apparent purpose either, and are not as funny as they should be. Still, the novel is readable and just now and again it manages to break through the desperate hilarity to make a serious point. Mr Kennedy is, after all, a serious and successful American journalist … and he has something to say about the way American society crushes idealism.

Stanley Reynolds, "Cosy Souls," in New Statesman (© 1970 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 80, No. 2056, August 14, 1970, p. 185.∗

Valentine Cunningham

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Forty-three years after his death the old comrades of the now legendary Jack "Legs" Diamond are reminiscing atop their bar-stools in a somewhat boozier than Conradian vein. Among them, her memory juiced-up by the drink, one Flossie recalls that Diamond "had a tan collie, could count to fifty-two and do subtraction", that he "could turn on the electric light sometimes just by snapping his fingers", that "he could tie both his shoes at once". But the story that's enclosed within this romanticizing frame [Legs] and told us by William Kennedy's ersatz-Marlowe—a lawyer called Marcus who's paid to bail out the boys and front the mob with a clean bib and tucker—amounts to something less fantastic but considerably more gripping. Not that the narrative is consistently exciting: it does come with longueurs and detumescences, and as is the wont of stories told in flashes back it lights up only in flashes. Still, these climaxes are certainly worth waiting for….

Above all, though, the coherence and attraction of the novel are a matter of tonality. Acidic mots are jerked out of the sides of bad-mouthing bad guys' mouths in the best manner of 1940s movies about 1920s gangsters. Legs has met Fitzgerald; he likes Von Sternberg films; he follows the boxing careers of Jack Sharkey and Benny Shapiro. And his world is delightingly peopled with the likes of Mendel (The Ox) Feinstein, Murray (The Goose) Pucinski, Tony (The Boy) Amapola,...

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Jonathan Penner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Lemon Lewis and Daddy Big, Honey Curry and Red Tom, Spanish George—not to be confused with Georgie the Syph, Poop and Chick and Charlie Boy.

All these and more colorful characters live … in Albany, New York, in October of 1938. William Kennedy has swept his net through that time and place—swept it at the depth inhabited by politicians and journalists, gamblers and criminals—and in [Billy Phelan's Greatest Game, a] flawed but fascinating novel, he empties his catch before us.

The two chief fish are Billy Phelan and Martin Daugherty, who take turns serving as viewpoint character. Billy is a bookmaker and pool shark, a hustler with quick fists, who honors the rule he lives by: If you lose, you pay. Narrow and intense, self-centered but loyal, he is perfect both as a caricature and as a character.

Martin, unfortunately, is a very sick fish at best, and often indistinguishable from a dead one. Philosopher and part-time mystic, he seems out of place here. His preoccupations are abstract, his elocution excessively fine.

The main plot concerns the kidnapping of Mayor Patsy McCall's nephew. In one way or another it sweeps up all of the many characters. Developed artfully, paced with sure instinct, it generates the tension that holds the novel together.

But only just barely. For this is a book rife with subplots that come to nothing, flashbacks that explain what needs no...

(The entire section is 607 words.)

Peter S. Prescott

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"Legs" translated the career of a gangster into a shimmering, witty story that combined fact and myth to prod at our national ambivalence toward celebrity criminals. The disappointment of ["Billy Phelan's Greatest Game"] is not that it lacks its predecessor's magnetic core, but that its core is so weak that its author seems to disdain it: the story's depth, as someone once said, is entirely on the surface….

But it is a surface polished to a high gloss…. Kennedy's story, such as it is, concerns Albany's night people, who live on the edge of the underworld. Chief among these are Billy Phelan, a part-time bookie and gambler who is good enough at cards, pool and bowling to win more often than not, and Martin Daugherty, a failed novelist and columnist for the Albany paper, who writes admiringly of Billy's style. When a nephew of the city's political boss is kidnapped, both Billy and Martin become reluctant negotiators for the fellow's release.

I won't say any more about the plot; it seems no more to have engaged its author's interest than it did mine. From time to time Kennedy tries to impose a little form upon his story—both Martin and Billy, for instance, must come to terms with their fathers' derelictions—but the line of his narrative would have been firmer if he had let Martin tell Billy's story, and if he had not been so distracted by the details, the anecdotes, the scraps of Albany lore and legend. I must stress that I found these distractions very pleasing indeed, and expertly done; at any point in his narrative Kennedy can be seen writing with great skill and authority, but the pieces do not coalesce, the story does not really progress. We are left at the end with the impression of a great many glittering shards thrown carelessly before us; yet they are, in their disarray, more attractive than the stolid structures assembled by some of his colleagues. You will find me at the head of the line again, awaiting Kennedy's next novel. (p. 100)

Peter S. Prescott, "Nightcrawlers," in Newsweek (copyright 1978, by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XCI, No. 19, May 8, 1978, pp. 99-100.

Publishers Weekly

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["Ironweed" is the] third in a series of novels set in Albany, N.Y., [and] this strong, authentic book bursts with black humor and stinging insights about a segment of American society. Francis Phelan, father of Billy, is a bum. He knows it and so does everyone else. It's 1938, and the landscape is thick with hobos—not just those looking for work, but those on the run. "What was it that did you in?" Francis wonders about a fellow traveler and then wonders about himself. Understanding why he's on the move is Francis's quest. Dodging the cold and taking care of his companion-in-arms, Helen, are his sacred duties. Returning to Albany 22 years after he had abandoned his family, Francis knows he never quit loving his wife, and by book's end, he is back home with plainspoken forgiveness on all sides. Wholly realistic dialogue and details of a tramp's rough life never clash with the big questions: How did I come to be what I am? And what am I? This supple, lyrical novel winds in and out of Francis Phelan's thoughts and questions, his sensitive perspective and perceptions, and creates a captivating character.

A review of "Ironweed," in Publishers Weekly (reprinted from the October 22, 1982 issue of Publishers Weekly, published by R. R. Bowker Company, a Xerox company; copyright © 1982 by Xerox Corporation), Vol. 222, No. 17, October 22, 1982, p. 42.

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"Ironweed"—which refers to a tough-stemmed member of the sunflower family—recounts a few days in the life of an Albany skid-row bum, a former major-league third baseman with a talent for running, particularly running away, although his ambition now, at the height of the Depression, has been scaled down to the task of getting through the next 20 minutes or so.

The novel is rich in plot and dramatic tension, building as it eventually does, to a violent showdown between a gang of marauding American Legionnaires and a handful of derelicts in a hobo jungle. It is almost Joycean in the variety of rhetoric it uses to evoke the texture and sociology of Albany in the 1930's, particularly the city's Irish...

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Paul Gray

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[William Kennedy, a] lifelong resident of Albany, has shown again how certain talents flourish best in native soil. Ironweed dovetails with its predecessor. The scene is still Albany, the time still 1938. It is Halloween, and Billy Phelan's father Francis is back in his old haunts, meeting ghosts and goblins from his scary past.

Francis is a bum and a lush….

Characters without wills of their own are usually bad bargains in fiction, able to play nothing but victims. But Kennedy shows Francis as both helpless and thoroughly responsible for his own condition. This aging drunk is quite capable of exercising volition; the problem is that his choices are crazed. He has taken on...

(The entire section is 303 words.)

Peter S. Prescott

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A good novel announces itself on its opening page: whatever distinctiveness of vision and discipline of language its author can muster will be at once apparent. In "Ironweed," William Kennedy fixes his story's tone—an elegiac tone, undercut by irony—in his opening sentence and moves immediately to set up the delicate blend of realism, myth and satire that will carry his tale to its conclusion….

William Kennedy has written good fiction before, which has gone largely unnoticed. This novel, if only enough people will pay attention, should place him among the best of our current American novelists. In its refusal of sentimentality, its freshness of language and the originality with which its author...

(The entire section is 152 words.)