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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Legs by William Kennedy

I don't have a lot to say about William Kennedy's Legs, the first novel of his Albany cycle. (I read two other novels in the cycle without realizing they were in any order. I don't feel like that lessened the experience.)

Legs is an episodic, rambling fictionalization of the real Upstate New York '30s bootlegger Jack "Legs" Diamond, who is remembered, if at all, for his amazing ability to survive attempts on his life.

In Kennedy's novel, Diamond's story is narrated by Marcus Gorman, a fictional creation. Gorman is a young Albany lawyer angling himself into position to run for Congress until a chance meeting with Legs leads to him becoming the gangster's personal counsel. Much of the novel seems to be an investigation into the magnetism and charm that a ruthless killer like Diamond can possess. Gorman knows exactly what Legs is. Legs' wife and mistress know about him too, and even know about each other, but still they can't help but be drawn in by him. Legs is even beloved by the general public, who crowd the streets around the courthouse and cheer his acquittal.

There are myriad problems with Legs as a novel. It's stream of consciousness plotting (Gorman relates events in Diamond's life as they come to him) does little to stir up dramatic tension. Also, Gorman the narrator leaves a lot to be desired. It's an inherent danger of first-person narration that the choice of narrator becomes so central to the way the story is told. As a character, Gorman is loquacious, garrulous, sarcastic, high-minded and witty. But these traits are deadly in a narrator, as it allows Kennedy the freedom to unnecessarily make his prose more wordy and philosophical.

Honestly, this novel was a rather stunning disappointment considering my love of the same author's "Billy Phelan's Greatest Game" and "Ironweed". Those novels made better use of their Albany setting, and made greater use of humor and kept the high-falutin' prose in check.

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