After reading Ironweed, which was outstanding in my view, I decided to read the two other Albany books. Legs was the first of the three. The author, William Kennedy, a salty old dog, is an excellent writer. I read that Kennedy lives in the Albany house where Jack "Legs" Diamond met his demise, taking three bullets to the head. Kennedy has lived his life (80 plus yrs) in Albany so he knows the myth and territory of which he writes. This is a good gangster book mixing both legend and fact. A tale of the 1920s and 30s when men like Diamond, Rothstein, Schultz and many others were making big money as bootleggers. Diamond had to always be on guard for his life. He juggled two women and kept them both reasonably happy. It was said that Diamond had read Gatsby, I doubt it. I think Diamond was little more than a vicious killer. Live by the gun, die by the gun. "I really don't think he's dead." (The book opens and closes with this thought.) I just read the book so Legs is alive in my mind. Money, fame, women and all else that goes with the lifestyle is pretty shallow. Something for old men and women to talk about over a beer or two. The good ol days when Diamond and his pals were having a good time and creating legends. Whether one likes the subject matter or not, Kennedy can write. I salute him. Billy Phelan's Greatest Game is on deck.
As other reviewers have mentioned, LEGS is the first of William Kennedy's 'Albany cycle', a series of eight books set in and around the city of Albany, N.Y. LEGS is the story of Jack 'Legs' Diamond, notorious gangster and bootlegger of the 1920's who was murdered in an Albany apartment in 1931 by two unidentified men who were finally able to put down 'the most shot at man in America'. Kennedy's portrayal of Diamond is nuanced, complex--beginning at the height of Diamond's popularity and power, the book then meanders through the gangster's last years, and rather than a straightforward account, it focuses on how the world consumed Jack Diamond and spit out the myth of Legs Diamond.
Told in flashback conjured up by four old acquaintances who all knew Diamond, the strongest voice is that of Marcus Gorman, Diamond's lawyer and sometimes confidante. He proceeds anecdotally; flashing forward and back, as the need arises, cutting across time and space to highlight Jack Diamond's relationships with his women and with others to give a picture of the man apart from the legend. And it is a favorable depiction, despite Diamond's gangster methods; to me, it's almost as if Mr. Kennedy is suggesting (through the lawyer Gorman) that Jack Diamond was a prototype of the modern Albany, or America at large--a sort of founding father, with (or because of) his warts and all. Perhaps not, but there is no doubt that the legend of Jack Diamond tapped into a part of the American consciousness, and even if he's less remembered today, that doesn't mean his persona didn't function as a kind of archetype in the twenties and thirties.
All that is probably beside the point. LEGS is an entertaining and thought-provoking read about people and time and place, with a great ear for dialogue. The exchanges between characters are too long to copy in a review, but the staccato pulse of the back and forth, and even the `eye' dialogue capture a tone that places the novel squarely within its time period. Some reviewers have also mentioned the sex and violence in the book, though considering the subject matter, I never thought the material tasteless or vulgar. Perhaps I'm desensitized, but I thought LEGS was less sensational, less graphic than many 'true crime' accounts, as well as that of much mainstream literary fiction I've read. It seemed to me to strike exactly the right note, if one's objective were to humanize a figure known primarily for his underworld activities and flashy lifestyle.
This is the first book by William Kennedy that I've tried, and it's obvious to me that he is one of America's serious talents--as opposed to the many satiric talents that seem to crowd into the `literary fiction' genre. Personally, I've gotten to where I can barely stand that clever cuteness anymore, and LEGS was a welcome break from that--I look forward to moving on to the next book in the cycle, BILLY PHELAN'S GREATEST GAME. Yet even though I really enjoyed it, something about Mr. Kennedy's back and forth style of storytelling put me off a bit--nothing serious, but enough to make the reading feel somewhat disjointed. Other, more careful readers will probably have no issue, and may even enjoy the presentation all the more for its unusualness.
One last note: Why no Library of America treatment?
I had never heard of Jack "Legs" Diamond. I guess growing up in Chicago, we had a surplus of local 1920s Gangsters. And, embarrassingly, I did not realize Legs was an actual person until after starting the book. But, really, it didn't matter. The story is great -- fact or fiction. Like a lot of gangsters, Legs has his streaks of sadism and generosity that flip at schizopathic regularity. And I found myself torn alongside of our narrator, Legs' lawyer, who also finds Jack both appealing and appalling. A great piece of historical fiction.